Thu 28 Sep 2017 | 01:57

Law discussion: a tackle - really?

Law discussion: a tackle - really?
Thu 28 Sep 2017 | 01:57
Law discussion: a tackle - really?

Those on the touchline want their man to stop the other man from running with the ball, threatening to score a try.


There were days when the cry would be more specific: "Tackle low." And that meant below the waist. A high tackle was above the waist, but now most tackles are above the waist and a high tackle is up around the neck.

The word has a more clearly defined meaning in law. Tackling, in the sense if grabbing a ball-carrier, has been a part of the game from time immemorial and regulations governing it have varied.

In 1602, it was forbidden "to but or hand fast under the girdle", which when translated means you were not allowed to tackle below the waist.

In 1877 you were forbidden to grab an opponent by the leg.

1892A tackle is when the holder of the ball is held by one or more players of the opposite side.

That basically was the definition of a tackle for years and years.


1981A tackle occurs when a player carrying the ball in the field of play is held by one or more opponents so that while he is so held he is brought to the ground or the ball comes into contact with the ground. If the ball carrier is no longer on his feet he is deemed to have been brought to the ground.

2017A tackle occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and is brought to ground.

There is a law rewrite in the pipeline. Expect the tackle definition to stay unchanged. It will have the same three elements:


grabbed by an opponent

brought to ground.


It would be easy if that were all and that the law went on to ruck and maul, but it's not. And it's not that the law has changed but that the law has been tampered with.

There are laws that have, in practice, been tampered with – for example foot up, straight feed, behind the kicker – but the difference here is that the tampering seems to halved been promulgated without change of law. It started, it seems, in Sevens and looks more frequent and more obvious in Sevens.

It is this situation: 

Red Smith has the ball and is running with it. 

Blue Jones grabs him. They stay on their feet. 

Jones is struggling to hold Smith up. 

Smith is struggling to get to ground. 

Smith gets a knee on the ground.

The referee calls "Tackle. Release."

If Jones lets go, play goes on, usually with Smith getting the ball back to his side.

If Jones does not let go, the referee penalises him.

A penalty – that which can win a game. And yet it is not law.

The law says "is brought to ground". 

Smith is not brought to ground. He struggles to get to ground. "is brought" is passive voice. Somebody else does the bringing. But in the case we have presented, Smith, of his own volition, goes to ground (active voice).

Often, perhaps even mostly, this happens after a support player has joined Smith – thus forming a maul.

Not that Smith is ever penalised for collapsing a maul though the law requires that he should be.

Law 17.2 (e) A player must not intentionally collapse a maul. This is dangerous play.

Sanction: Penalty kick

a player.

Not a Blue player. "A player" includes a Red player.

A maul doesn't change its being and become a tackle. It stays a maul.

Law 17.6 (g) If the ball-carrier in a maul goes to ground, including being on one or both knees or sitting, the referee orders a scrum unless the ball is immediately available.

That is a long, long way from penalising Blue Jones.

Or have we got it all wrong?

Or are the laws really just rough guidelines?

Or are laws open to interpretation by match officials and not just application requirements?

Maybe it's interpretations that make it harder to get consistency in application. 

PV: 2