With the kick-off of Super Rugby, the third round of the RBS Six Nations, and rounds in both the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12, there was a veritable slate of action to watch over the last few days. However it was one of the last games of the weekend that provided two of the major talking points and an unusual source for it; Italy’s use of the ‘zero ruck’ tactic and England’s first-half difficulties in understanding; and defeating it.
The Zero Ruck Tactic
The zero ruck is a simple concept with a sound rationale for a team that want to create disruption. It is a deliberate tactic where the defending side chooses not to commit to a breakdown after a tackle.
19.11 This is not a ruck. One Italian makes tackle and no other Italian engages. Italy legitimately come around as there's no offside line. pic.twitter.com/l9GG0NwvZg
— Matt Tyrer (@Tyrer79) February 26, 2017
Under the Laws of the Game, the definition of a Ruck – defined as one or more players from each team and in physical contact on their feet over the ball on the ground – creates an offside line, meaning that once one forms all defending players need to reach that point before the can again take part in play. A tackle by itself does not create an offside line.
As referee’s we [I say this as an active referee] go through a myriad of progressions each time the ball goes into contact. Do we have tackle, or a maul? Does the tackler release? What are arriving players doing? Do I even recognize play as a ruck?
The decision making process goes something like this: If you get a ruck, you start to think about offside lines. If you don’t, then you don’t and it’s still open play. Referee Roman Poite and his two assistants caught onto it very quickly.
Players Question Officials Over Zero Ruck Use
In using that strategy, Conor O’Shea and his Italian side effectively created a ‘free-for-all situation’ once the ball had been recycled. It meant that they could effectively clog up England’s structures and running lines, and [to a degree] make nuisances of themselves.
It’s an unusual tactic, but one entirely within the rules of the game.
Bizarre as it was however, the fact that England’s highly-coached and well-resourced players were caught off guard by the tactic seemed to illustrate a lack the knowledge or ideas, on how to counter it was somewhat more surprising–leading to this brilliant exchange from Roman Poite.
'I'm a referee, not your coach' – Roman Poite channels his inner Nigel Owens in exchange with England stars pic.twitter.com/MW9pSvur9Y
— Independent Sport (@IndoSport) February 26, 2017
Reaction on social media was predictably mixed, with confusion as to what was going on and criticism of it. Others; with a wider world view, knew exactly what was going on (see Mike Friday below).
Common tactic in WSS 7's and Hurricanes in Super XV 's deployed it effectively as well https://t.co/YykTj5nShX
— Mike Friday (@MikeFriday09) February 26, 2017
Zero ruck is not a new tactic, its use in the professional ranks by both the Hurricanes and Chiefs – and a lesser extent by the All Blacks – have seen it make its way into the amateur game here in New Zealand.
To be effective it requires discipline and a clear plan of when to commit and try to create a turnover, as its greatest benefits is that it can negate quick ball. As well as create confusion for a highly structured team like England. Despite this, teams seldom play it as a tactic for lengthy periods; it can simply become too risky to continually soak up pressure and make tackles and can be exploited by quick ball movement while the pick-and-go is also an effective counter.
That Italy seemed prepared to ‘try it’ for most of a game of an international rugby test seems remarkable.
"I've never played in a team where that has happened"
— BBC 5 live Sport (@5liveSport) February 26, 2017
England should be credited for the adjustments at half-time that enabled them to take control after the break and run in five tries to win 36-15. For mine, Italy should be credited for daring to try something different.
Scott MacLean is a Wellington Rugby Referee’s Association active member, with an analysis of the Six Nations from the on-field officials perspective.
“Main photo credit”