“At the breakdown, the first defender is on his feet, supporting his own body weight, and trying to jackal the ball from the tackled player. Then a ruck is formed. Is the first defender allowed to continue to poach the ball?
Is the defender infringing for hands in the ruck?
Or should the attacking player be penalized for not releasing the ball?
So let me start by saying, “great question”. You are 100% correct with your assessment of the situation. The first arriving player, may legally attempt to gain possession of the ball if 1) the ruck has not formed yet and 2) they did so by releasing the ball carrier and coming through the gate. NOW the ruck forms and you as the referee call “ruck formed, hands away.” If they have gained possession of the ball they may continue to play it, however if they are still digging for the ball they must give up their efforts and get their hands out of there.
This is super difficult to catch and it only comes with much practice. To catch this, it’s all about your positioning: you want to be back at a slight angle so you can see what is going on in the ruck. Too many of us are standing either next to the ruck or at the last man’s foot. Ask yourself, from where you are positioned, can you see hands in? All this happens really quick! Once the ruck is clearly won and the ball is clearly in possession of one team or the other, you can now move your positioning in anticipation of the next phase of play. You don’t need to stay on top of the ruck any longer – now you want to watch for the offside line.
Side notes on the ruck:
This is arguably the most controversial part of the game (that, and apparently we have made the high tackle the next…).
1) You want to be AT the break down. It happens fast so you really do need to be in shape so that you are right there when the tackle occurs.
2) Know the laws. A one man “ruck” only occurs at a tackle. You want to see a “clear” release. I always say, “show me your hands, I want to see your palms”. I know we all have our different strategies here, but the bottom line is if its not “clear”, then that’s when the whistle comes. Put the onus on the tackler to make sure the release is “clear”. Watch for side entry. When you call “ruck formed, hands away,” keep an eye on the action. Watch for players diving over the ruck and flooding the area for the approaching players from the other team. Watch for players going off their feet at the ruck in order to seal the ball (shoulders below the hips is a good tell). Rugby is a game played on your feet. If you are not on your feet, leave the ball alone. Again, be vigilant. If a player goes off his/her feet but quickly corrects it, you need to quickly evaluate if it negatively effected play. If not, play on.
Again, I know there is a lot that happens fast at the ruck. Your goal is to facilitate quick, clean ball. Meaning: be there, don’t allow bodies to pile up. Keep the defense back BEHIND the last mans foot, not ON the last mans foot. Call “Ruck formed, hands away” clearly. If you set your standards high, early, and communicate them so players and captains (and coaches) know your standards and see you enforcing them, the game will clean itself up and be a lot more pleasant to officiate.
Again, thanks for the questions, we all learn together. 🙂
– Andre Bruwer, Ohio Rugby Referees Society President and CMO