Despite the calls for a change in the laws to rucks, I’m here to say no. The problem on Saturday was that the England players and crowd are obviously too stupid to understand what was going and adapt (and perhaps angry that their expectations of a cricket score were being spoiled by some smart play).

As I hinted in my previous post on the topic, there are several ways to counter the refusal to commit to the ruck.

Obviously without committing players there, the defenders have, in theory, up to seven extra players but a typical defensive ruck is usually actually only four or five strong. There are exceptions to that (if there’s a good chance of a turnover, if the attackers pile a lot of extra players in, if it’s right by the try line for example), but you usually see the defenders have the tackler, one or two extra players forming the ruck, then a guard close on each side, sort of ‘half bound’ to the ruck for a total of five. These guards can lean in to stop a drive up the middle or step out to stop a quick pick and drive. There will be two players (usually forwards) a bit more detached as the next line of close defenders for the pop pass but are too detached for attacking ruckers to drag in and try and create a ruck, unlike the guards, and Italy had these looser players at most tackles so they created four or five extra defenders, not seven.

Then, however, they put several of these players on the England side of the tackle, preventing easy passes and disrupting lines of sight. So their net gain is possibly two defenders, and probably two front row forwards, who are not typically the most mobile players on the park.

There are a number of simple counters which will almost always work.

  • The boring pick and drive. The defenders don’t have a enough numbers to stop you, so you just pick the ball up, drive straight ahead and off you go, making metres. This is dull but good in some ways because it makes them start to commit to the ruck more traditionally.
  • The inside pass. The scrum half picks up and runs an outside line at the pillar (or bodyguard) the looser defender that is still there, on one side or the other. A winger or a loose forward runs into the space created and the 9 pops the ball back inside. This is devastating if the extra defenders are both props and you’ve got an agile winger who is looking at a prop trying to cover the space that the defending scrum half should be covering… but the defending scrum half is out where the attacking 10 was standing as happened quite often.
  • The box kick. Another one for when you’ve got props where the 9 and blind-side wing should be defending. Your blindside wing and/or 12 are suddenly in with a great chance of regathering the ball.
  • A cross field kick. This might not be within the skill set of most 9’s but if it is something your 9 can do, it’s great. If, as England do, you have a 10 and 12 that can both do it, pull the 12 behind the ruck and get him to do it. Most 15’s can probably kick this well so consider that as an option instead of the 12. Just kick your way passed the problem.
  • Consider those crazy scrum moves where you get a line of players behind the scrum and apply them behind the ruck. Make the defenders think about where they’re going to go and go where they’re not blocking you.
Any of these give you a way to counter the play and mix up the attack. Several of them exploit the weaknesses of the play - rugby is about contests, as Eddie Jones said, but it’s about thinking too. Italy made it a different form of contest not so much about the push and shove in the ruck but about the ability to adapt and overcome the unexpected. England failed dismally. But like any plan in a sport (where there is some semblance of fairness) there are flaws with such a strategy. Scotland won’t use the “no rucks” strategy but you can be sure every coach in the world will drill their players on counters to it now. Just as they will have drilled their players on counters to the extra players in lineout that Scotland pulled against Ireland.

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