RuckGate

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!

 

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USA Rugby 7’s National Championships 2015 – In A Nutshell

Well, I was given the opportunity to run some AR (which means assistant referee) for the National championships of 7’s in 2015 for USA Rugby.  The feeling was surreal throughout, and I was honored to have the chance.  At one point I managed to shake Waisale Serevi’s hand.  AAHHH!  What the fuck am I supposed to say to a rugby god?  “Nice to meet you, sir.”  Is what I blurted, and I was rewarded with a comforting pat on the back as though he knew my mind nearly exploded.

Negatives… None.  My mother always told me “If you’re not going to say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”  That said, I’m going to stick to the positives of the experience, and leave those who have to worry about the faults to do that type of worrying.  The teams that showed up to the tournament were top-rate.  I saw a young team keep pace, and in some cases punish top women.  There was a standout player by the name of Nia Toliver who was absolutely above the rest, and she was about 17.  Her, and her team (which I never caught the name of) were exceptionally well coached and though they may have wished for a better result they certainly should have been proud, in my opinion.

In the finals of the women there was a team from Seattle called the “Saracens”, I believe, and a team from Arkansas called the “American Rugby Pro” team.  I may be wrong about all this, but it’s a blog, so who gives a shit?  The coach of the American Rugby Pro team is probably one of the greatest coaches in America.  Her name is Dr. Julia(Jules) McCoy, and though I’m very unbiased I couldn’t help but observe her quality.  If she’s not on deck to coach Eagles, she should be.  Sharing the coaches box with her was another woman who I believe may have been Laura Cabrera, but that is just by examining their website and guessing.  The two of them excelled in their communication from the sideline, which is a quality highly underrated and often mocked, and kept lines formed on the pitch in constant attack.  Another underrated quality of good coaching is working on player fitness, and preparedness.  These coaches should teach class on this subject.  Their players’ fitness levels were surreal. In appearance they were all “built like a brick shithouse” and, more importantly, their defense resembled a brick wall. Eventually pulling away from their Seattle opponents (who it was rumored had Serevi’s daughter on the team), and winning a National Championship with sheer fitness and determination.

In the finals of the men the Seattle team was again represented.  They played against the Denver Barbarians, or Barbos, and Seattle managed to pull out the victory.  For two teams, men and women, to make it to the finals, and to come from the same city is simply amazing.  Surprising, to me at least, Seattle is a city of such outstanding rugby.  Their teams were both simply incredible.  I read that this may have been Seattle’s third victory in a row at a national championship level.  Really?  Just put them all in Rio, already.

Another of the standouts in the player pool was the Belmont shore’s #11.  Short guy, stocky with a cornrow hair style, and he probably scored the greatest try I ever saw first hand.  He got the ball and danced.  It was like magic dust was falling from his boots as the players missed him.  He could have taken it in, but ran at the corner and popped a needless scissor pass to a friend cutting toward center at the 5 meter line.  An act of unselfishness of the sort which sets apart the true scorers from the glory seekers.

And on to the referees!  As I said, I was honored at the opportunity to referee with such high quality folks as the members of this tournament’s team.  The national panel referees were unbelievably patient with my stupid law questions, and very helpful in educating a wannabe such as myself.  At one point, I had Mike Kelly tell me that he would “own the calls out here”  because we were without a mic system and I couldn’t have been more appreciative of that.  Feeling as though he had my back, and would own my mistakes if necessary, was a feeling I couldn’t express, but to say “Wow”.  He also collected himself at half, which I made a mental note to remember to do, and ref’ed some of the fastest rugby I’ve ever seen to near flawless result.  Another Kelly of no relation to the prior, Brian, was a phenomenal young referee from Virginia.  He was what I would consider highly intelligent, and I’m not the dimmest bulb in the chandelier, either.  Although his singing is questionable, his refereeing almost never is, and at twenty-three his future seems bright.  On to my favorite part of our team, the women.  Ha, ha, but seriously I had a chance to witness the refereeing of some of the greatest young referees America is swinging around these days, and not surprising to this writer, many of them were women.  Leah Berard has ref’ed international matches and has an eye for the game that I would rate at Goddess-like.  I couldn’t help but admire her control, speed, and awareness.  She was a cut above, as expected.  Another referee whose awareness surprised me quite a bit was Emily Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”).  She may have received a scholarship to travel to South Africa to work with refereeing workshops over there, and it was beneficial without doubt.  She had eyes in the back of her head, it would seem, and a feel for the offsides line that seemed to transcend peripheral vision.  Another of the outstanding women referees was Amelia Luciano.  She may have been one of the first to receive that previously mentioned Shanagher/Morrison scholarship for rugby travel, I think New Zealand was her destination, and again, it was obviously beneficial to her rugby knowledge.

Moving on, I was impressed with most of the referees at the tournament and think that USA rugby is doing a good thing with the way they finagle scheduling of ref’s.  They bring in great refs, and get guys like me (who are green as grass) an opportunity to run with the best, and somehow the best don’t resent us dipshits, and our questions.  We get to osmosis some of that genius into ourselves, hopefully, and we can purge some of our stupidity outright. Overall, I couldn’t believe the opportunity I was given, and the people I got the chance to experience it with.  A huge thanks to Jeremiah Johnson, Aaron Haehn, Thomas Lyons, Brad Kleiner, and Tammy Cowan for their hard work in executing this tournament, and pulling the referees together to produce something worthwhile.

What’s it like to help referee a big 7’s tourney? Fantastic. We were consistently being urged on to produce the best results we could muster in a very fathering manner by Lyons.  He told us that we were good, but could be better and I felt his positive vibes like waves of reassuring energy.  Even if we, and the teams had been producing the greatest rugby possible, which we weren’t, I felt as though he would have had a similar tone in trying to coax that last bit of greatness out of us.  Somehow, we would start seeing those “from the sides”, and the “diving over’s” in a consistent rate even if other referees around the world couldn’t do it.  It’s his kind of tone that I personally respond best to, and feel that most athletes in this world are cut of the same cloth.

In conclusion, I want to talk about sight picture.  I’m about to attempt to make an analogy between firearms, and refereeing, so if you’re not on board with seeing where that goes, then here our journey ends, and I thank you for your time.  However, if you wish to continue down the rabbit hole which I have conceived, then walk this way.  Sight pictures are when you look down the barrel of a rifle, or hand gun and align the rear two sights with the single pin on the tip of the barrel.  This is how you shoot most firearms that don’t have scopes and any shooter can tell you that the way you line up your particular sight picture is what leads to the results you are going to achieve.  The two rear sights are your index and ring finger, and the front pin is your middle finger.  Look at the three together, line them all up so they are equal in height, and distance apart and you have achieved a proper sight picture.  It should essentially look like three I’s. III  At the top of the middle one is where the round will strike, but I digress from the point of this.  A proper sight picture in shooting is acquired by putting your eye in a consistent place, and knowing what you are wanting the picture to look like in order to gain accuracy.  In rugby, the same is true of refereeing.  We are drilled on getting to a spot with angle sufficient enough to see the ruck, and the defensive line.  Once we are at that spot, we should then be able to start employing our sight pictures of what Penalties look like to decipher if we are seeing those things, or not.  However, the consistency starts with getting our sets of eyes to consistent spots on the pitch.  If we are too far toward the defensive side of a ruck it’s like having the barrel of a rifle tipped too high up and forming a iIi sight picture.  We can’t be accurate without putting our cheek on the stock in the same place each time, so to speak, and evaluating what we are seeing with what we should be seeing. In rugby refereeing, that spot on the stock (so to speak) is on the offensive side of the ruck, bladed towards the defense a couple meters off the spot the ball will be produced.  Sort of.  I’m sure that would be arguable.  Essentially, if we can get to this spot on either side of the ruck (usually infield), then we only have to interpret the same sight pictures from two angles, right and left.  It’s when we get caught too far in front of the ball, out away to the side, or behind the ruck that we are unable to form sight pictures at all.  It is then that calls are missed, and panic ensues around rucks. Experienced referees can compensate for this placement issue because they’ve seen the infringements from so many angles they have more highly developed sight pictures, but new and young referees are best served by finding their placement.  I’m thinking of Annie Oakley shooting with a gun over her shoulder and a mirror in one hand, but still dead on accurate.  Once we accomplish the placement of the eyeline, we then need to be able not to seek the good, but, actually, to seek the bad, in my opinion.  I say this with the meaning that if we are looking for good rucks constantly, then we may see them even when they are not there.  Likewise, with penalties I would imagine, but it’s my article and I’ll take it where I want it.  I feel as though one who knows what a penalty looks like, and uses that image as their sight picture, is able to more accurately define when they have seen it and confidently take action against it.  It is this reason, in my opinion, that so many of the knarled old heads of rugby refereeing (and fans) can see a mess, understand it, and know what call should come from these messes.  They see the penalty’s sight picture from whatever angle they are at because they’ve been around long enough to recognize it from different angles.  In the shooting world, they call those “trick shots”, and as referees we need to try to avoid making each of our running lines turn into the point where we are attempting trick shots with our calls, hoping for accuracy, all because of bad lines, or positioning.  Thanks for your time.