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By ARU Media Unit
Without doubt, this is the one issue in the game that continues to create debate as to the best way to coach this aspect of play, and how to referee it. The determining factors are what is legal under current Law and what the referee sees, communicates and adjudicates on.
We all know that the tackler must immediately release the ball carrier once a tackle is effected, and that the ball carrier must exercise their options immediately, and that the next arriving players must approach through ‘the gate’. So why is it such a mess? The simple answer is that coaches of the defensive team are coaching players to slow the ball so that their defence can be organised.
As a consequence, the attack has to commit a number of players to the contest to guarantee possession. They are then numerically short to attack (when compared to the defence), and find themselves trying to find mismatches and opportunities to create space. Outflanking the defence, and running to space is not an option. So what is the answer?
Essentially, the coach has to look at what options are available to the ball carrier when in possession. Step 1 is to identify the environment immediately in front of the ball carrier. With an impending tackle the ball carrier must then decide how they take the ball to ground. What shape do they assume on the ground; where is the ball positioned; and what opportunities do they have in relation to their support players? As in most things in rugby, it's about ‘time and space’. At the tackle contest correct decisions have to be made in a split second!
If the ball carrier is aware of the time and space issues, then their support players must be aware of opposition “threats”. Threats take the form of immediate opponents who may contest the ball or slow the ball. They are in close proximity to either the ball or the tackled player.
The attacking support player(s) should communicate with the ball carrier prior to contact. (It should be noted that this situation recognises that contact is inevitable!!) What are the decisions of the primary support player?
1. Ball carrier stays up and ball is visible – drive on to the side ball carrier, and secure ball. This is commonly called ‘latching’. This means that a maul is formed and offside lines are formed.
2. Ball carrier stays up and ball is hidden – drive on to the ball carrier's buttocks, with strong leg drive. This is commonly called ‘hammering’.
3. Ball carrier goes to ground and ball is visible – drive out any opposition threats, or pick up ball.
4. Ball carrier goes to ground and ball is hidden – drive out any opposition threats, or roll tackler off the tackled player who is in possession of the ball.
When ‘driving out’ opposition players, the attacking support player should attempt to have their weight over their feet; driving from low to high – using their arms, and driving from the inside to the outside (that is, towards the corner post). If this occurs, a space will be created directly behind the ball carrier which means that the next arriving players have the opportunity to ‘pick and drive’ in a straight line. This is one of the most vulnerable areas on the field as defenses usually spread across the field.
The other option is to drive support players directly back so that the ball can be picked up and moved in a diagonal, but forward direction. The advantage of this is that the opposition have to run around the players on the ground to get near the ball carrier.
Creating off-side lines assists teams as they create time and space. The space is created by virtue of the fact that the defending team must retire behind the hindmost foot of the ruck or maul.
A number of players today arrive at the tackle contest and squat over/near the ball to secure possession, but are not actually achieving anything. How often do you see three or four attacking players committing to the tackle contest with no opposition players contesting? In short, this is a recipe for (attacking) disaster. Coaches need to take responsibility for what they are coaching at this aspect of play. How many are being committed? What are they actually doing? What impact do they have? What are the roles and responsibilities? What needs to be communicated? What decisions have to be made? How much time is available and where is the space?
It’s only when the whole team understands their role at the tackle contest and practice it, do teams re-cycle ball quickly. If this is achieved, then those players standing behind the tackle contest, or in the backline can exploit the space.