Law discussion: Why Francois Cros was penalised but are counter-ruckers unfairly treated

Lawrence Nolan
Toulouse back-row Francois Cros on the ground.

Toulouse back-row Francois Cros on the ground.

In the 50th minute of Toulouse’s victory over Harlequins in the Champions Cup semi-final, the French side’s marauding flanker Francois Cros was penalised.

Nothing too peculiar about that, you might say, but the crowd was furious. What they had seen was Cros and a team-mate enter a Harlequins ruck from a fine angle and shove a Harlequin off it so effectively that the ball was on their side and awaiting the attentions of Monsieur Dupont.

But referee Andrew Brace was having none of it. Why?

Fraught with danger

Counter-rucking is fraught with danger. To do it, you need to apply resources at ruck time that most defensive coaches might argue would be better used shutting down space out wide. It requires timing, accuracy and bravery; after all, normally you are trying to shove against the tide.

If you do manage to do it and the ball does come out on your side, often you are not prepared either to use possession properly or even to know you have won it. There’s usually a player between the scrum-half and the ball, while attacking players often spy a free ball and are quick to dive on to regain it (often they are offside, but that’s another discussion).

But Toulouse made a strategy of it in Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-final, having clearly identified that Harlequins like to use quick ball from trimmed-down rucks which often appeared to be more like sevens rucks, with one man cleaning. On any occasion Danny Care or Will Porter were not there quickly enough, in came two or three red-shirted colossi to bundle the lone cleaner off.

Which was what happened on this occasion. Cros and his mate did bundle the Harlequin off the ball, but in the act of doing so, lost their footing (in one of the cases almost certainly because he tripped up over the Harlequin on the ground).

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The relevant legal part is Law 15, The Ruck, and most importantly, it pertains to both teams. This is it, relevant paragraph by relevant paragraph.

Law 15.2: A ruck is formed when at least one player from each team are in contact, on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground.

So far, so good.

Law 15.5: An arriving player must be on their feet and join from behind their offside line.

Check

Law 15.7: A player must bind onto a team-mate or an opposition player. The bind must precede or be simultaneous with contact with any other part of the body.

Also check. So we have a ruck, and it is legal.

Law 15.10: Possession may be won either by rucking or by pushing the opposing team off the ball.

Toulouse do this. The ball is now on their side and under the feet of the counter-ruckers.

Law 15.12: Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck.

Ah. Our first problem. Endeavour is a little forgiving; it makes it sound as though there is a loophole whereby players might be able to say: “well I tried, sir” and referees would then be able to judge on opinion. We’ll return to this.

Law 15.15: Players on the ground must attempt to move away from the ball and must not play the ball in the ruck or as it emerges.

Our second problem. Neither Cros nor his companion show much desire to get up after they lose their footing. And it makes it impossible for anybody else to get near the ball.

Law 15.16b: Players must not intentionally collapse a ruck or jump on top of it.

And perhaps our third problem, when taking the juxtaposition of the two problems above into account. The sanction for all three of the above acts is a penalty, which was, in this case, correctly awarded.

Fierce competition

Counter-rucks are often the result of fierce competition at ruck time, which lends itself quite easily to players falling off their feet. They also can happen quite suddenly and unexpectedly, meaning a scrum-half who is readying himself to sweep in defence a good way back from it often needs a few seconds to identify the problem and get there in time before the ball squirts out.

Those few seconds are often time enough for the attacking side to reinforce its resources and try to counter the counter, which generally results in a morass of bodies under which which someone, somewhere, might find a ball.

The defending team usually has to make quite a significant effort to get a counter-ruck, but getting full control of the situation is far rarer. It’s little wonder that players do not keep their footing.

But as said here, penalising them is correct if they do go off their feet.

But watching a number of the games this weekend, there’s definitely a case for saying that such laws are far more stringently applied to counter-ruckers than ruckers. Some of the post-cleanout finishing positions for attacking players in the Sharks-Clermont match at the weekend were a bit of a joke (and I have only seen the highlights reel of that one unfortunately).

Players from attacking teams going off their feet at rucks is a constant thorny issue, occasionally cracked down on by officials en masse, always pushed back against by players seeking to find a way around it. It would be great if all ruckers were treated as counter-ruckers and we could get a better contest at all times.

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