Sunday, May 03, 2009

Community guidelines around ruck and tackle - REFs and COACHES please read and chime in

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching two local D2 teams play and one D3 college team and one thing stood out: There is a big disconnect between how coaches perceive the how a post-tackle contest should be refereed, and how the referees actually referee the post-tackle contest.

Back in February a document named "Community Management Guidelines for 2009," that made it to most all in the ref community, but not necessarily to folks in the coaching community. So that's what we're going to look at today, as well as explore some options to get refs and coaches on the same page earlier. Throughout this post, highlights from the document will be displayed in dark green. Its worth noting that while the excerpts below refer to USA Rugby, a similar document was circulated by the RFU. So these aren't just "American Rules."

USA Rugby Referees’ management has established guidelines to refereeing at all levels in USA Rugby. These guidelines enable players and referees to have a clearer approach to the game, to enable consistency in Law application throughout the country. They also reflect directives from the iRB, particularly in relation to the tackle/ruck, and players staying on their feet. The guidelines were first established for the USA Rugby Super League in 2008, and upon its success, it has been further developed for the 2009 season. The RSL Game Management Guidelines 2009 apply only to that competition. This document applies to all other competitions. These guidelines are to be distributed nationally to all referees, referee observers, referee coaches, players/teams, coaches and administrators.

Ed Todd, Referee Manager, USA Rugby Richard Every, National Panel Manager, USA Rugby

I personally received this document because it was forwarded to me by a friend who refs. At that time, I was getting ready to do a guest session with the USA U20s, specifically on ruck/counter ruck and creating turnover ball, and the one thing unclear about the first statement is "does this apply to our national teams as well?" What's the difference between community guidelines and law? I also have several WNT pool players I work with - will these laws apply to them as well, and if so, how to I coach them to do one thing in a league match, and another when they are training with the WNT. So that's one part I want to know. The other part is this: If RSL (Rugby Super League) is playing to a different set of guidelines, what are they, AND will the new Women's Premier League play under different guidelines than D1 and D2?

Let's dive in to the specific guidlines around law (displayed in green below):


A. The Tackle

1. The tackler has to immediately release the tackled player, and move away or get to their feet. PK

2. The tackled player must exercise their options immediately. PK

3. Players that slow the ball down should be penalized immediately. PK

4. Referees may instruct the players, i.e. “release the ball”, “roll away”, etc., as long as these players have not already slowed down ball availability.

Referees are to approach a low tolerance level at the breakdown and should penalize early in the match to establish compliance. PK

For the most part, the section on tackle hasn't, changed but there are some clear guidelines about what should be immediately penalized that lead me to some questions: 1 and 2 are basically stuff we all know and all coach - but what about slowing down the ball? A technique used by one to team to speed up ball delivery (something like sealing) is certainly speeding up ball delivery, but it has, over time, started to erode the contest for the a ball. Over time this has evolved into strategies like "zero ruck", where essentially it only takes a tackled player and a sealing support player to secure possession and rather than contest, the defense sets up a 7 or 8 man picket fence on the fringe. Since there is technically no ruck formed, no one is offsides, and the defense can launch without waiting for a ball to be "out" Because there is no contest for the ball, the balance in the IRB charter is off (The IRB charter states that one of the unique qualities of rugby is the balance between the contest for possession and continuity of play). So what of counter-rucking? It's certainly designed to slow down (or turn over) the ball at the tackle contest but I can't imagine it would be blown up as it's absolutely part of the fair contest for the ball. So that's another question I'd like to have answered by a high level slash B panel ref. I think most coaches teach their players defensively to slow down the ball in order to limit the offenses optionsand buy time for their defense to re-align.

B. The Gate

Overhead view, Blue tackled Red. Players are only allowed square entry through their indicated gate area.

1. All players have to enter the tackle through the gate, referred to as a square entry, shoulders parallel to the goal lines. No part of a player’s body (including their arms), may enter the tackle through any other area. PK

2. Not entering through the gate should not be tolerated. PK

Ok, we're all on board with entering through the gate. But entering with square shoulders is either new, or I've just been ignorant (both are possible). I was forever under the impression that as long as you entered through the gate, you were kosher. Sometimes its advantageous to take an angle to remove a player from the ruck and create a turnover, or even to clear out fringers who may be dangerously offsides. But "square shoulders" implies something entirely different ...

Overhead view, Blue tackled Red. Blue A and Red C are entering through the gate with square shoulders, Blue B is beginning his/her run from outside the gate, but entering through the gate, without square shoulders. Red D is entering from behind the gate and going through the gate, but without square shoulders.

So in the above illustration, who is legal? I suppose A and C are no brainers. Are B and D illegal because their shoulders aren't square? Is only D illegal because technically his or her hand or arm might be outside the gate upon entry. Again Bish or higher level referees, HELP!

Next up:

C. Arriving Players

1. Players are to enter the tackle on their feet, and remain on their feet. PK

2. At a tackle, arriving players are allowed to play the ball with their hands after an opposition player binds onto them, if:

a. They arrive at the tackle legally,
b. remain on their feet, and
c. Have possession of the ball (i.e. was grasping/holding the ball) prior to the contact occurring.
NOTE: Thus, a ruck has not formed yet.

3. No players may bind onto players that are on the ground. PK

4. Players who secure the ball without their weight fully on their feet (i.e. bound on OR leaning on players on the ground) OR who go to ground head first, or dive over players on the ground, OR dive over players on the ground with the ball between them should not be tolerated and penalized. PK

From the images above, and from item 4, it should be CRYSTAL CLEAR that the act commonly known as "sealing" (also sometimes referred to as bridging, which technically is where the players hand is on the ground, rather than the body) is without question ILLEGAL and will be penalized. That didn't take long ... didn't we just start teaching this a couple of years ago? Phoey!

But seriously - my real question here goes back to the somewhat ambiguous verbiage around "Community Guidelines". Is this application of the law only relevant to "community" rugby (ie anything other than International, Professional, or in the USA, Super league NA4, .. and, with the new structure in place ... Women's Premier League. Or, are community guidelines like this simply addendum's to the law book issued between annual publishing, and do they apply to EVERYONE?

The first illustration below, illustrating legal actions by arriving players, confuses me. Why? It appears to be obstruction. Can my player really stand in a ready for contact position, on the other side of the ball carrier, and initiate a ruck when the ball carrier is not beneath her or in front of here. REF PLEASE HELP! The second illustration should be something we are all familiar with and probably requires no discussion.

Part 5 of this series of clarifications is the one that I find MOST INTERESTING AND RELEVANT, and that from my observation, is not generally being applied uniformly, AT ALL. The referee who did yesterdays game did employ this new clariication, to the delight of one team, and to the frustration of another. Once she explained fully to both sides the logic behind this particular guideline, I think everyone understood and adjusted as well as they could. Here it is:

5. If a player enters the tackle in conformance with the required criteria and subsequently goes to ground during the process of removing a tackler or because the opposition were unable to retain their position at contact, this player should not be penalized because they did not willfully go to ground.
NOTE: They may not remain on the ground, nor be lying on or over the ball. PK

Between guideline 4- specifically the below phrase:

4. ...... or dive over players on the ground, OR dive over players on the ground with the ball between them should not be tolerated and penalized. PK

and guideline 4 in it's entirety (repeated below for clarity)

5. If a player enters the tackle in conformance with the required criteria and subsequently goes to ground during the process of removing a tackler or because the opposition were unable to retain their position at contact, this player should not be penalized because they did not willfully go to ground.

I interpret that the "Diving Over" penalty is reserved only for, literally, DIVING OVER. As in, "hey, there's a player on the ground, the balls on the other side, I'm going to DIVE over the player and try to kill the ball or get the ball". It's got to be willful. It's got to be intentional. Period.

From what i've seen, refs across the country are implementing the no sealing law. But they aren't implementing the subtlies of the diving over law. Stuff like pulling a rucking player over the top, backing out of a ruck as a player comes at you, or simply playing zero ruck, giving the opposition NO CONTEST, will almost always result in a player on the ground in what appears to be a "Diving Over" position. And that player gets penalized for diving over, when really he or she is simply attempting to participate in a contest for the ball. Going forward, if I read this right, if a player winds up on the ground on the opposite side of the player or the ball, because they encountered little or no resistance, because the defense lost their feet and as a result the rucking player lost their feet, or because they were pulled down by their opponent, it is not a willful act of "diving over", and it should not be penalized, as long as the player fulfills his or her obligation to roll away.

Refs and coaches - any thoughts on this?

In yesterdays game, one team was clearly stronger moving the ball wide and superior outside speed. The second team was clearly strong at the breakdown and created alot of possession for themselves through turnovers. The first team put only one or two defensive players in the ruck, and set everyone else up on the fringe, or got bodies in the ruck and didn't drive through. The second team piled players in, over, and through the ruck, and frequently wound up on the wrong side of the ball. But since it wasn't willfully diving, and because it occurred as a result of the opposition not giving them enough of a contest, it was not penalized, they were able to play from a quick source of possession, AND turn over a lot of ball (that didn't help them win, but the game itself was a classic forward vs back game, with nearly every try on the outside - it was a 3 points separated the teams at the final whistle)

So how do get get coaches and refs on the same page, and how can we prep our players BEFORE new interpretations go into effect.

Its simply in my mind - just like with the ELVS, give the coaches warning before any implementation. If there are minorm law changes or guidelines, 30-90 days is probably fine. Major changes, like the ELVs, require at least 6 months to a year. Give coaches an implementation date, across the country. Give us time to prep our players.

What's happening now, is that guidelines or law changes are circulated to the various referee societies, and not every union circulates them to coaches (or coaches don't ready them: BAD coach!). As a result, players show up at game day and are reffed to a different standard than they have been coached to all year, and coaches get P.O.ed because they think the ref doesn't know or is making up laws as they go, when really, these referees are attentive and reading and learning all the updates.

We also need referees and/or referee educators - but not just C2/C3 type referees, bonafide B panel refs and ref educators at coach development events, and coaches (again not just new coaches, but coach educators and mentors) at referee development events. The reason I say not just C2/C3 types and not just new coaches, is because I believe when bringing in a high level coach (or ref) for coach (or ref) development, a high level ref (or coach) is needed to put things in context, explain issues of materiality, spirit of the game, etc. Lower level refs tend to err on the whistle blowing side and ref towards whatever style of rugby they are most familiar with. On the flip side, a higher level coach can explain what techniques and tools are currently in use to deal with particular rules, what techniques are blatantly illegal, and what techniques truly rely on the discretion of the refs. That will in turn help some of the negative sideline chatter that occurs when coaches and refs disagree about what the law is.

There are more community guidelines available - the Midwest has converted the pdf to html and has them them posted on their site - . I'm sure they are on the USA Rugby Site, but when i was search for an online version, this was the first result.

Let's have a lively dialogue about this one. I want to know if my interpretations are correct (especially regarding part 5), and I'd really like to hear from both coaches and refs. The closer we get to each other in our understanding of the laws the game and how they are enforced, the closer we will get to the spirit of the game. So go for it!


henshall1 said...

ahh this is a good posting!

The good news is there are some easy answers to your proposals and some that are a little murky. It is these that will make for some interesting discussion.

Firstly let’s deal with the gate. As per your diagram, all are legal. The guideline is also meant as a guide for referees and how to manage the gate. If a player has their shoulders at a 45 degree angle to the lateral line and is running in from an angle (shoulders not square) then this player is more likely to be looked at so the referee can determine the entry. From what I have seen at community level and above this is not our problem - agree? I would encourage all coaches to get their local referee experts to chat in groups about this. Its well worth your while. We did it on the NP and with the RSL coaches.

OK, the tackle…this is the most difficult and contentious phase of play as it happens at lightning speed and is followed b the ruck. Firstly most referees are not in a good position to referee this to the level of the guidelines and are often not close enough, or working hard enough verbally. This is a reality the at the international, national and community level. Within the US there are only a handful of the National panel refs who are getting this right with a reasonable level of consistency. There is also variability within the National Panel and focus group referees and by the same logic even higher variability from B panel through the C’s. Like it or not we all have to deal with that. It’s our job as custodians for the future of the game to continue to improve USA Rugby.

OK, the slow ball is something that at the RSL level is rife and can be easily prevented with accurate quick penalties early on in the game. Combined with some good verbals for players, coaches and fans can be very powerful. These calls often frustrate folks at the community level as they are often not being adjudicated for this on this. We should all persevere here. This too is true for players going to going and sealing. Oh, the RSL guideline is very similar, but less easy to understand so essentially they are the same document

We should not get too attached to the visuals in the guidelines as they are snapshots to guide adjudication and facilitate discussion and consistency. The reality on the field is quite different. I always like to remind us that it’s worth waiting the extra second to see the result of the action of the player. So if a third man goes in and goes to ground, but the result is that the ball can be played from both teams…Play On! Supporting the iRB idea that it’s all about the contest…this is exactly what we want. Anything that a player does to the contrary is liable for penalty. So if a player flops over the ball at a tackle (even though not willful) he is liable for penalty. It does not matter how he got there or what lame excuse comes after…the result was what determined the sanction.

The guideline goes a long way to stride toward a unified system. The reality is we are far from that at the moment.

Kevin BMK Sullivan said...

The Ref establishes his "law" early, and you'll have a great match. If he's inconsistent, bad times.

As a coach, Game Tape is the key to solving breakdown problems. Players, especially those who watch Pro Rugby, readily see the differences and learn at an accelerated rate.

Norm Mottram said...

As the prior comments said this is a great post and a key part of the game that we need to get right. Two thoughts came to mind on reading the post.
I strongly agree with the post that it is critical that we maintain the identity of Union, that is, preserve the contest at the break down. Only by having the opportunity to counter ruck will the defence comitt players otherwise we will have the League style spread defense. I think it is critical that the referees continue to emphasise giving the priority to the player on their feet and ensuring access for both sides to the ball after the tackle. By eliminating the squeeze ball and getting counter rucking back into the game, space will be created.
My second thought is that coaches and referees need to have a better and continued dialogue. While it happens at the higher levels we need to encourage local ref societies to have joint coach/ref sessions. This may reduce (but will not!) eliminate some of the adversorial relationships between coaches and refs.
My thoughts for what they are worth!