Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Shoulders below hips - is it ever ok?

I had a lengthy discussion this weekend with a referee about the notion of "shoulders below hips". After reading the comments on the Stanford v PSU women's collegiate championship final, it seems this topic requires further discussion. (how does it feel to be the subject of our discussions Alison?)

At the forefront of the shoulders-below-hips issue is the technique known as "sealing".

Sealing occurs when, as the offensive players who arrives first to the breakdown, you bind tightly to the player on the ground. When done correctly, the player pulls the head and neck towards the shoulders, tensing everything in the front and back of the neck, and pulls the player on the ground towards the upper body, essentially creating a seamless "seal". This technique of "securing" the head and neck is known as "turtling". Players contesting the breakdown are free to counter-ruck and drive the sealed player off the ball, though a nice tight bind by the sealing player, and traditional "drive over" support by the supporting offensive players make it more challenging to contest for the ball. when done correctly, a seal does not kill the ball, in fact it makes it more playable for the team that arrived first to the breakdown. It completely eliminates some of the wild kicking that can occur at the breakdown, and it significantly cuts the number of players required to maintain possession at the breakdown.

At the highest level - Sealing is a no brainer. Do it, and do it well, or you won't get selected. From a coaching perspective, coaching the seal safely should be considered as critical as coaching safe scrummaging or safe tackling.

What's the point of contention for referees? Well, there are few. If the defense does not in fact contest the breakdown, and the sealing player came in with power (as they should, since the may very well transition from seal to clear-out mode as they arrive), the arriving players momentum may create a "diving over" scenario. At the higher levels, arriving players are not penalized for diving over, since that scenario does not present itself unless the breakdown is uncontested - in which case there since there no defense, a player who finds themselves on the other side of the downed ball carrier is neither impeding play, nor in a dangerous position (if theres no one around you to injure you, are you going to be injured?).

Many referees contend that, at the seal, since the shoulders are often below the hips, the act itself is inherently dangerous. And there is guidance to back this up.

So I suppose this is where discretion of an individual referee comes in. Do we apply the same standard of safely to a new, younger, or less physically mature player that we do with a fit, well trained, experienced player?

My discussion this weekend ended at an impasse - the specific take on sealing was that, if your butt was down and your head up, it was safe, since the shoulders were above the hips.

I disagree - in this scenario, players arriving from the defensive side of the breakdown can very easily drive a knee (unintentionally, simply in the act of rucking) into the sealing players face and chin, and players from the offensive side can easily drive the sealing player over the top of the downed player, simply by applying any pressure to the sealing player from behind.

In the "tight and turtled" scenario, the sealing player is in a modified 4 point stance, with their head securely nestled on the offensive side of the downed player, with their head and neck muscles in a solid and balanced position. Is their head below their shoulders? YES. But, if done correctly, you are literally pulling the downed player toward you, and, were you as a player, to let go, you'd remain on your feet.

Interestingly enough, this same weekend we ran into some challenges with our scrummaging style. Since the head is in a neutral position (imagine how your head sits on top of your body now, then simply bend at the waist without changing head position, and you'll see what that's like), the clear cut "head above hips" is hard to see. In fact, it looks like the head is exactly even with the hips (which, is what this particular style calls for). Since guidance is "head above hips, always and forever", this style of scrummaging has drawn some angst from many in the referee circuits. Which, lets face it, is a problem - since this style of scrummaging is being taught throughout the country, to men and women of all ages, as the way WE (USA) are going to scrum.

What to do? I'd love to hear from a high level (B1 etc) ref on the matter ... At this point, on game day - I have no idea what to expect. With the ELV's looming on the horizon, it seems we'd better sort this all out.


Alison Worman said...

Hey Lisa, Iagree that when done correctly, sealing is safe, and in some instances safer than normal rucking. I find myself using the seal especially off of 8-man picks (as a flanker) b/c the goal is usually quick ball to thhe backs, and sealing is often the quickest way to achieve this.

I also understand the hesitation to teach this sealingto younger players. If you do not have the core strength to stabalize yourself, sealing can go very wrong. Maybe a different u-19 law is needed, like for scrummaging and long body rucking?


KLK said...

We only made it to the semis this year but I gotta say as a hooker the thing that's really getting my goat is the level of feeding that's tolerated from the international on down to DII collegiate rugby. Of course there's some give or take on what's going straight etc but when scrumhalfs are chucking the ball at the locks knees enough is enough! Our ref in regionals knew the other team was feeding but ignored it because we were still still winning the ball (with wheels, drives, and lots of fishing). Ok, the logic works but it doesn't mean we didn't have to put in extra effort when the other team was CHEATING. Ugh.

ChiefCUA said...

I received this email a while back durring a referee meeting, I thought this would add to the conversation...


I just had a lengthy talk with the USA Rugby Laws Committee Chairman in regards to bridging. We have come to the conclusion and a position as to how it should be called at ALL levels.

1) It is permissible to place the hands on or over (on the ground) the tackled player as long as it is done SAFELY. The head and shoulders MUST NOT be below hips, the knees MUST be off the ground, and the player MUST be able to protect themselves at all times. The preferred position would be to have a fairly flat back with knees off the ground and head up. If the "bridger" gets into an unsafe position (i.e. head and shoulders below the hips) or the knees go to ground then he/she is liable to penalty.

2) The ball MUST be placed back immediately and NOT held close to the tackled player.

3) If the ball is place back immediately and is secure there is still a tackle situation and; therefore, the defenders MUST still come through the gate to play the ball. In other words, no ruck has been formed; but, there is the "gate" regulation to be adhering to and; therefore, the defender CAN NOT just come around to play the ball. If the defender does come through the gate, he/she may play the ball; BUT, if significant contact is made while coming through the gate this now constitutes a ruck and should be announced as such.

4) It is permissible as a counter action to the above ploy to barrel roll the "bridger" off the tackled player as long as the defender comes through the gate and stays on their feet at the point of contact.

5) If a ruck or maul has commenced and then the defenders back away from the play, IT IS STILL A RUCK OR MAUL and all the Laws pertaining to a ruck or maul still are in effect and should be maintained.

Lee Knight
(650) 776-4410
http://overachiever coach.blogspot. com

marcB said...

i don't believe its a safer method, what it does do is protect the ball for your team and help to maintain control of the ball. It also goes against the I.R.B rules that state the tackled player is supposed to move away from the ball on the ground. All the laws were put in place for a reason and finding ways to circumvent those laws is not always a good thing, even if its in the name of winning.
Lowering your body so that you 'seal' yourself to the player on the ground, puts the sealing player at a dangerous level. And its not so much a matter of conditioning and fitness as a matter of being willing to get hurt doing something inherently dangerous. If the ruck is uncontested the player coming in has other options, for example the pick and go. Sealing serves only to slow the pace of the game down, while you wait for slower players to get into posistion. Your scrumhalf or his/her alternate should be within the second or third person to the breakdown anyway.
What you will see is players caught sealing getting hurt by opposing players 'accidentally' so that it rapidly becomes a course of action that is too dangerous to continue.