by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
With the 2011 Rugby World Cup recently concluded and the New Zealanders crowned deserving champions, now is an appropriate time to share observations from the tournament. Specifically, this offering will discuss the tackle contest, scrum engagements and how the laws, their application and refereeing have made this World Cup one of the best.
In the coming weeks, the International Rugby Board will publish match statistical analysis reports of each contest played during the tournament. These statistical reports are very informative, telling the story of how the laws affect play and influence outcomes. To coaches, this analytical information is priceless and helps shape the way we coach.
Although not best practice to guess, empirical evidence demonstrates that application of law 15 and performance of the match referees at the tackle contest is as good as it has ever been. Law 15, “ball carrier brought to the ground and held”, defines what rights the tackler, ball carrier and other players have once a tackle has been made. Consistent application of the law and articulate instruction from the match referee has produced appropriate outcomes during these frequent and important moments in the game.
Errors were made, as in the case of the final, but by and large, when the ball carrier and first supporting players executed their roles well, the attacking team was able to successfully (and at times quickly) recycle possession. Conversely, when the tackler, tackle assist and other defenders who are on their feet out-performed the ball carrier and first supporting players, turnovers were the result. The law created clearly defined titles (tackler, tackle assist, ball carrier, etc.) necessitating players to perform specific acts, which helped the referee determine compliance.
For example, during an evenly contested Scotland versus Argentina match, the Pumas were ruthless during this facet of play. The Argentine defenders displayed a deliberate tendency to tackle very low, leaving the ball carrier’s upper body free. Although the tackler must release the ball carrier, since the tackler was at the ball carriers feet and not proximal to the ball combined with the immediate presence of the arriving players, the tackler’s lack of prompt release was immaterial. As local area referee Pete Smith commented, “This is a case of spirit versus letter of the law “.
Smith offers further, “The tackle assist, like the tackler, must release the ball carrier before they re-engage and attempt to turn ball over. They cannot remain latched onto the ball/ball carrier as they are going to ground. The best tactic is to NOT be a tackle assist (be in contact) and simply arrive as close to simultaneously as possible as the ball carrier is brought to ground.” This was often the case during the Argentine match: the arriving player wasn’t the tackle assist but had timed out his arrival to the tackled ball carrier in such a way that he was able to earn possession of the ball.
This tactic, and specifically the technique used to make the tackle, provided the Pumas with multiple opportunities to regain possession of the ball without exposing themselves to penalties. Although all 20 teams desired this outcome, Argentina was exceptional. The tackle contest was also notably impressive in how low to the ground the best players were competing. These were big, strong men lowering their bodies to compete at high velocity.
Another notable area of improvement in matches was the scrum engagements and application of the scrum engagement cadence. It was not that long ago when, after a scrum collapsed, penalties were being awarded in a haphazard fashion. In the past it appeared as if the referee was being forced to guess at which player was guilty of a minor or major infraction or just repeatedly reset the scrum. Now the use of controlled engagement cadence, along with empowered (and wired) assistant referees (formerly touch judges), almost entirely eliminates the guesswork when a scrum has collapsed.
Additionally, the slower, more deliberate, cadence ensures that both front rows are completely stationary and balanced before they engage that dramatically reduces the number of re-sets and penalties. Likewise, the slower cadence gives the referee more time to assess who has failed to engage on command, bind properly, or push squarely. Best of all, for a former front row player like me, is that the referees are able to differentiate between a slip and a collapse, without arbitrarily assigning blame to one front row or the other. Again, the changes made by the lawmakers have produced an environment where a contest can occur, and dominance exerted, by either team. No longer are stakeholders aghast when the referee blows their whistle signalling an infraction decision. It is clear to all.
The 2011 Rugby World Cup was a showcase of very hard, fast rugby. The epic semifinal match between Australia and New Zealand was a masterpiece of speed, skill and physicality. I can’t think of any better outcome for the game of rugby than to have these matches as its crown jewel.
HAVE YOUR SAY…What were the special moments for you at the Rugby World Cup. Leave your comments below.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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