World Rugby move to kill off ‘counter-caterpillar’ ruck

Tim Swinson (pictured), along with Maro Itoje and Nick Isiekwe, were the main exponents of this new tactic in Saracens' win over Sale

Credit: Getty Images Europe

World Rugby have outlawed Saracens’ recent introduction of the ‘counter-caterpillar’ ruck, or ‘crab’ ruck, by demanding that players involved in such incidents must return behind the offside line.

Telegraph Sport focused on the new manoeuvre at the end of November, with World Rugby opting to use the same examples of those rucks in their explanation behind outlawing the move.

At a ‘counter-caterpillar’ or ‘crab’ ruck – in an attempt to mitigate the caterpillar of players that their opponents use to shield scrum-halves prior to a box-kick – players were able to shuffle sideways and even beyond the offside line to disrupt play, providing they originally entered through the gate and kept fully bound with their whole arm and shoulders, given that once a player is bound into a maul – or, previously, a ruck – the concept of side entry does not apply to them.

In their explanation published earlier this month, World Rugby said: "Adding players to your own side of the ruck, in order to advance closer to the opposition side of the ruck… squeezes the space available and compromises the clearance of the ball from the ruck. These actions should be discouraged.

"If a player is fully bound and they have moved beyond the offside line then they must return to be behind the hindmost foot before being able to be involved in play, once the ball is out or is played from the ruck."

The outcome of World Rugby’s law clarification will lead to caterpillar rucks, used primarily to set up box-kicks, being afforded greater protection.

‘Counter-caterpillar’ explained: Saracens’ controversial new tactic

By Charlie Morgan

Three years ago at Sandy Park, Saracens were thrashed 31-13 by Exeter Chiefs. They conceded four tries in the process. And the first looked weird.

From a lineout close to their own try-line, the visitors established a drive that was forced towards the touchline. Sam Skinner, the Exeter lock, was part of the counter-shove. He began from behind the Saracens jumper but, because of how the maul morphed and spun, he ended up next to Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer. Crucially, though, Skinner had not changed his bind.

When Spencer pulled the ball away from Jamie George and attempted to clear, he was charged down by Skinner. Luke Cowan-Dickie was on hand to dive over.

Tom Foley, the referee in charge that day, blasted his whistle multiple times. He took his time, viewed a couple of replays and correctly allowed the try to stand. As jarring as it appeared, Skinner had not been offside. Once a player is bound into a maul – or a ruck – the concept of side entry does not apply to them.

This concept came up in a conversation with Ian Peel, the Saracens forwards coach, last month. Premiership referees regularly visit clubs and Foley had travelled to Old Albanians RFC, where Mark McCall’s team train.

That moment was the catalyst of the ‘counter-caterpillar’ or ‘ruck crab’ that Saracens unveiled during their win over Sale Sharks on Sunday in an attempt to mitigate the caterpillar of players that their opponents use to shield scrum-halves prior to a box-kick – ironically, a ploy that Saracens themselves have leant on for years.

Peel explained the idea to Foley, who asked for video clips of it being attempted in training over the next week or so. That footage was then sent on to World Rugby for ratification. Joël Jutge, the head of match officials, and Joe Schmidt, the global governing body’s director of rugby and high performance, were among those to view it.

“World Rugby [initially] came back and said it was legal provided that players enter through the gate and they keep fully bound with their whole arm and shoulders on,” Foley explains.

“It’s the same as what happens at a maul – there was nothing wrong with it in law. The point we made to Saracens was that if there was any doubt that they were not fully-bound, we would penalise them. If they were going to do it, they had to be really good at it.”

As you would expect of a team that revels in the nitty-gritty of kicking strategy and set-piece detail, whose coaches were schooled under Brendan Venter – the instigator of the no-ruck approach Italy used to fox England at Twickenham in 2017 – Saracens were good at it.

Premiership coaches regularly speak to referees in the build-up to matches and Peel had called Foley to inform him that the crab was coming. Nick Isiekwe was the first to unveil it, binding on to Vincent Koch edging around this breakdown closer to Raffi Quirke:

Saracens crab 1 – Isiekwe

Foley’s explanation was quick and clear. As Isiekwe stepped around, he said: “They’re fully bound”. Then, after Quirke’s kick sailed into touch, Foley added: “They’re fine, there. They’re always fully-bound, and entitled to come around.”

In World Rugby’s most recent review of that example, they said: "Black 6 has rotated around the side of the ruck. He must return to be behind the hindmost foot before being able to be involved in play, once the ball is out or is played from the ruck."

Alex Sanderson, the Sale director of rugby, knows all about Saracens’ creativity in the dark arts. He was expecting some quirky tactics and it did not surprise him that they centred upon how Sharks would attempt to exit their own territory.

To play devil’s advocate, should Foley have warned Sale? He points out that, while this was the most “different” question he had fielded from a coach, an important distinction is that Saracens’ original inquiry was conceptual. They will have targeted Sale, who box-kick a lot, but face caterpillar kings Exeter this weekend as well.

“We don’t want to stifle innovation and if we can solve problems in the lead-up to a game, we don’t have to solve them in the heat of battle,” Foley says. “The teams are coming up with the ideas. We’re just dealing with that as and when they happen.

“Let’s say they’d raised a question about something Sale were doing, we would always share that with Sale,” he adds. “Because this was just a clarification on law, we wouldn’t share it. Just because they’ve thought a bit, why should Saracens be disadvantaged by us giving away that game plan? We wouldn’t give away a game plan, but we would share concerns.”

With Isiekwe in the back row behind a lock pairing of Tim Swinson and Maro Itoje, Saracens had an ideal trio of rangy forwards with which to mount crab attacks. And they were typically diligent and intuitive in using it.

Here, Mako Vunipola initially bound on to Isiekwe before calling in Swinson to creep around and pressurise Quirke:

Saracens crab 2 – Swinson

While bound to Isiekwe, because he has entered the ruck from the back foot, Swinson is able to encroach beyond the offside line:

How new tactic works – Saracens

Itoje had a couple of attempts in the second half, and flicked the ball in this instance. Mako Vunipola cleverly volunteered himself to be the first man involved in the ruck, giving Itoje the opportunity to pivot around him:

Saracens crab 3 – Itoje

During their preparation for this fixture, Foley and his team – assistant referees Jack Makepeace and Gareth Holsgrove plus television match official Rowan Kitt – had been wary of a Sale player causing a “massive flashpoint” by steaming in from the side and illegally taking out a crabber. As it happened, Sale stayed mindful of joining from the back foot and, in Foley’s words, “were positive in how they dealt with it”.

Another fair question is whether caterpillars and counter-caterpillars could be culled with more stringent policing of law 15.17, which states that teams must use the ball within five seconds of it becoming available.

Foley says officials’ “hands are tied a bit” here, because the ball often takes a while to become available in the first place and calling “use it” before then would be unfair. He does expect rucks to speed up due to Saracens’ scheming. And only those who respect the crab will get away with the tactic. Those two things will be beneficial for everyone.

“It didn’t look as bad as I was expecting it to,” Foley says. “It looks wrong, but I was expecting them to take it to the extreme with three or four people in there and come right around like a tail on the ruck.

“Saracens picked and chose quite carefully about when they were going to use it. We won’t see it at every breakdown because it takes a lot of discipline to set it up. The point stands that, unless a team is good at it and squeaky clean, we will look to penalise.”

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