During a rugby match in the Spring of this year, there was an interesting development in the way that rugby is taking place. Many people believed that the sport itself was tainted in some way by disrespectful play, law malleability, or poor officiating. I’m hoping to alleviate the belief in this final option through the course of an explanation. This development was generally known as RuckGate, and I am going to attempt to clarify this issue through the course of this piece of writing.
The match in question was a contest between England and Italy, of which Italy was the eventual winner. The referee on the day was Roman Poite, and he was credited by some as having an outstanding match, and by others as having completely blown the game. In truth, I feel it was somewhere between the two, but the educational examples provided within the match have great value to students of the game, and here is why. The two most valuable words in the 2017 year of rugby became, “Tackle Only”. What this implies is that there is no ruck, and only a tackle has taken place at that particular breakdown. In order for a ruck to be formed their needs to be a player from each team having made contact over the tackle area, and in some cases this just doesn’t happen quickly, or at all. In fact, trained teams in the scenario can avoid rucking and, therefore, create these “tackle only” scenarios almost at will. This is a problematic point of issue to some, and a chance for education to others. If a referee is aware enough of the situation, and Roman Poite is very aware, then the referees are able to distinguish the play they are seeing, often vocally. With this distinction, the players know what the referee is considering to be occurring, and they can react based on the things they hear from the ref. Hearing the words “tackle only” the Italians would move forward into space around the tackle zone that is usually regarded as offsides based on the last man’s foot at the ruck. However, they knew that there is no ruck, so then no offsides, and the play is deemed “open play” allowing the defense to take up positions up-field. “Open play” is most commonly seen on the pitch immediately following a restart kick-off. During this time players from both teams are allowed to run to where the ball is expected to land, and the kicking team often pass players in route to their chosen locality. They are not offsides because they have run past a forward to attempt to recover their team’s kickoff. This same logic applies, apparently, in any “open play” scenarios, and the players may have somewhat unrestrained movement based on where they expect ball to be arriving, or support to be needed. So, theoretically, they can run up half-way between the scrummie and the fly-half and wait for the ball where they expect it to be coming.
However, there is still a tackle, and a tackle zone. Which means that the players who have moved forward alongside of the tackle area are not allowed to enter into the offensive side of the tackle zone unless they have begun their route through “The Gate”. The gate is, essentially, a space from the toe of the tackler to the head of the ball carrier as they lie on the pitch, and it is in this space that rucking is expected to occur. If players travel from their side of the gate straight through to the opposition side, then they are in their rights within the laws, in most cases. If players move into the zone where the tackle occurred, but they have come in from an angle, or around from their oppositions’ side of the tackle area, then they are committing a “Tackle Zone Entry” offense. Usually, this is called on a tackler-assist player who has managed to be in a close proximity to the tackler as they brought down the ball carrier, and didn’t quite manage to retreat around to their own side of the tackle before they attempted to play the ball. This is known as a “Tackle-assist Zone Entry” offense. So, if players move up-field beside the tackle zone because they hear that it is a “tackle only” scenario, and they have rights to those areas within the logic of “open play”, they still do not have rights to the oppositions realm around the tackle where a scrum-half would likely be expected to make their pass from because that is still the tackle zone.
So what does this all mean? Essentially, the Italians were well versed on this particular section of the laws, and found a weakness in the English law knowledge centering around that same section. They were able to repeatedly exploit this lack of knowledge, and that caused extensive confusion, and eventual mutinous behavior, towards the referee. The Italians knew that upon hearing the words “Tackle only” they had a green light to run up and create the issue. They got pinged once for zone entry, but did a fairly respectful job allowing the opposition scrum-half to the ball. The referee called the match as he saw fit within the laws, whether or not both teams understood those particular variations of law. This caused confusion, but it also caused education, and I hope that I have clarified, and contributed to the education of this technique, although I wouldn’t advise putting it into practice. Also, this was written by a mid to low level referee from America, so if there are discrepancies within your own opinions please share them in comments, so education can continue. Thanks for reading!