Be ref-savvy with an aggressive lineout defence

England prepare to sack the Welsh lineout

Defending the “catch and drive” (the lineout maul) is a hot topic for rugby coaches, players and referees alike. It’s vital defences remain focused on controlling the progress of the ball, not the man.

Sacking the maul is a particular type of defence that not only seems to require a lot of work on the training ground to perfect, but also a forewarned referee.

I asked Simon Thomas, a Level 7 English Society referee and Level 2 adviser in England, for his views on this controversial defence.

(Please note that Simon’s interpretation is based on his experience and not on official IRB or RFU statements.)

What happens?

Immediately the attacking jumper (the catcher) lands (literally when his feet touch the ground), the defending player directly opposite tackles him high, and attempts to turn him over his (the defender’s) hip towards the defender’s line.

Simultaneously, the other defending players attempt to drive the attacking lifters and other support players behind the catcher.

The referee’s view

As soon as the catcher’s feet are down, you have a potential tackle situation. Of course, the catcher can only be tackled if he has the ball and then only before any maul has formed. The tackle must also be made before any other defenders make contact with the attacking support players.

However, the tackle only occurs if the ball carrier is taken to ground. Otherwise, a maul is formed on contact, as the jumper is bound in by his support players. Any tackle opportunity is then lost.

A high (upper body rather than middle or legs) tackle on the catcher may be ineffective. Any such tackle may look to the referee as if a maul was being formed. I would also look carefully at any tackle which took a player over the tackler’s hips, as this could be viewed as a potentially dangerous “judo style” throw.

Timing is crucial in getting the first tackle in effectively. I have only seen this done effectively as a very low “falling backwards” tackle, using the catcher’s own forward motion to bring him down.

Unless the catcher is immediately taken to ground before any maul is formed, I would look at penalising the defenders for collapsing the maul. I may consider a yellow card, or even a penalty try depending on the proximity of the goal line and the likelihood of a score occurring.

I would allow the defending players positioned opposite the support players to bind and drive. This effectively creates a maul as the support players are bound to the supported catcher. The support players cannot be tackled (the word “tackle” again implies taken to ground), as either the catcher has been tackled, and we have a ruck, or has remained on his feet, and we have a maul. The support players are not the ball carrier, so they cannot be taken to ground legally.

Forewarned is forearmed

In reality, these types of defence tend to happen so quickly, especially at national, provincial and divisional league level, that I would prefer to be quietly forewarned of the defensive intent to tackle the catcher, so to be focussed on the first contact.

As a referee, my over-riding element is safety. I believe the lineout, tackle and maul laws give a clear definition of what is legal and what is not. In summary:

  • Forewarn the referee about controversial lineout defensive moves. He does not want to be surprised. If he is, he might penalise the wrong outcome.

  • You are not allowed to tackle the support players to ground. Binding on and driving them is fine, but the catcher must be on the ground before this can be done.

Using the disengage technique

A high-risk defence, which again needs a forewarned referee is the disengage technique.

When the lineout attack comes down, the defending team don’t engage. If the attacking team move the ball back to the “maul” before they engage the defence, then it’s a penalty against them or potential blocking.

If they do move forward with the ball at the front, then the front ball carrier can be tackled.

If they stay still, the defenders can send round a defender to grab the ball. See below.

It’s high risk because the attacking team can just wait for the engagement and be settled. Also, the defence is not allowed to step back out of the lineout.

The referee should be told about the tactic before the game and be asked what needs to happen to ensure they are no penalties given away.

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