Is Rugby’s Breakdown Broken: Part 2

Published on: 26th March 2018

Filled Under: Opinion

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Welcome back to the second part of an ongoing series asking whether the breakdown is broken. If you missed article one you can catch up here.

Fair warning this is a long one as I’ve combined part 2 and 3. I’ve only a handful of pictures and only one video to hold your interest. This could be a slog but I wanted to document my thoughts so here we go.


The next issue in this ongoing saga of the breakdown is the act of a turnover itself. Brought to the world stage by George Smith it is the action of getting your hands on the ball before any opposing players arrive and form a ruck. This strategy, that lined up with previous laws, has allowed players to turn balls over quite frequently.  Once there is a contest over the ball and a ruck has formed all hands must release all balls 😉 apart from the initial pillager.

Is this just interpretation?

New(ish) Law circa August 1st, 2017:

Law 16 – A ruck commences when at least one player is on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground (tackled player, tackler). At this point, the offside lines are created. Players on their feet may use their hands to pick up the ball as long as this is immediate. As soon as an opposition player arrives, no hands can be used.


Fred has already dissected this new(ish) law in a previous article when they were first introduced and you can find that discussion here.


Fred’s comments on the ambiguous nature of this law rewrite are spot on. The new law allows a player to use their hands but only if it is judged to be ‘’immediate’’ which has no strict definition. It also states ‘’As soon an opposition player arrives, no hands can be used’’ this vague wording of immediate and then the almost contradictory no hands can be used in a ruck leaves ultimate power down to the referee. Whether a player is allowed to get their hands on to the ball first and then hang on to it after the ruck has formed is entirely down to interpretation.


Whichever decision a referee makes they have a different line of the same law that they can point to and defend it. As a result, we are getting spectacles of tense drama with a hunt for breakdown penalties. For these moments to be dictated by a referee’s whim, as if they were a dungeon master, feels like too much of the onus is on one person. As with the penalty for ‘sealing off’, it comes down to how the ref feels the game is going. Rather than an application of a specific law to direct the game through a very complex phase. It is all based on materiality. Does the penalisable offence impact the way the game is going?

Players are flopping over rucks to prevent this more interpretative part of the laws from being relevant. All in a hope that referees will let it slide and allow the game to flow in the name of materiality. The problem is that players flop over rucks because they need to and defenders don’t compete because players flop over rucks. That makes the act of flopping over change the way opposition players play by teaching them to not compete. This makes it materially relevant. It’s all wonderfully circular.

Furthermore, with the hunt for turnover penalties there comes a point when the second or third player to arrive at a ruck will make an attempt at the ball. This often happens after an attacking player has flown over the breakdown, off their feet, taking themselves and the first player out of the game. When this second attempt happens the ref will often yell hands away or something to that effect. But on the odd occasion referees see a player with clear hands on the ball with a man on the ground not releasing they will give a penalty for not releasing. However, according to the laws as they are written, only the first player may touch the ball, and even then only when it is immediate. So any other players coming in to take the ball after the ruck has formed can only do so if the ruck is officially over as directed by the referee per the law below.


Ending a Ruck – Law 15.17 – 15.19


  • 17 – When the ball has been clearly won by a team at the ruck, and is available to be played, the referee calls “use it”, after which the ball must be played away from the ruck within five seconds. Sanction: Scrum.
  • 18 – The ruck ends and play continues when the ball leaves the ruck or when the ball in the ruck is on or over the goal line.
  • 19 – The ruck ends when the ball becomes unplayable. If the referee decides that the ball will probably not emerge within a reasonable time, a scrum is awarded.

TOPSHOTS South Africa flanker Schalk Burger (L) is tackled by New Zealand flanker Richie McCaw during the South Africa versus New Zealand test match in Johannesburg on July 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI


The removal of feet being used at the breakdown for safety reasons has ended up with an odd possibility. The ball can be held by a player on the floor whilst being attacked by a second pillager. This second pillager can then be penalised for hands in the ruck and give away a penalty. Any late arrivals to the breakdown will struggle to safely hook the ball back with their feet towards their team through the prone player’s body. This means that a player can, theoretically, be lying on the floor holding the ball, with little to no competition allowed, until the referee explicitly calls the ruck over. This scenario seems daft but players are being penalised as the second pillager for going after the ball so this could lead to defensive oddities to avoid penalties.

In essence, there are a number of things amiss with the breakdown today. The large mix of pre-2017 interpretations alongside ambiguous 2018 rulings isn’t helping. Then all of this is being thrown into the ’off your feet’ and ‘pilfering’ discussions, which in the context of rugby’s long history, are still reasonably new.

World Rugby need to protect their referees from potential abuse and backlash by giving them laws they can use consistently. But, when a referee can make polar opposite calls using the same law it’s going to lead to frustrated fans. I, sadly, have very few ideas on how to fix this problem. But, I do know that rewriting the laws to make them more ambiguous is not the solution World Rugby were hoping for. It’s just kicking the can down the road.

Short essay over, comment below with any of your thoughts I’m very interested to hear them,

Sav Over & Out



Here’s a clip of Veainu being awesome and our twitter account.



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