The Rugby Ruck Explained

There have likely been thousands of arguments about what exactly makes rugby a grat game. One reason that’s likely offered in such an argument has to do with the Right to Contest Possession of the ball. According to the laws of the game, possession of the ball is up for grabs at any given time during live play. This is especially true when the ball carrier gets tackled to the ground by an opposing player. When this happens a Ruck forms; rucks are significant because they allow both sides a chance to secure possession of the ball. This guide features a brief overview of how rucks are formed, as well as some rucking strategy elements that can be applied on both offense and defense.

The Ruck

It’s sometimes helpful to think of a ruck as a rugby tug-of-war for the ball. Instead of pulling a rope, players push each other and try to claim possession of the ball. The contest goes on until one side possesses the ball long enough for one of their other players to get the ball out. Though pushing opposing players is at the core of rucking, there’s a bit more to it that requires additional information.

A Ruck’s Life

The exact length of time a ruck can last for varies on several things, from the number of players involved, to where specifically the ruck is taking place. Regardless of how long it lasts for, here is a list of the steps involved in both starting and finishing a ruck.

Step 1: The Confrontation

The ball carrier is confronted by an opposing player. Usually both players go to the ground, but the only player that must go to the ground for a ruck is the ball carrier (otherwise it’s a maul).

Step 2: The Release

As soon as ball carrier and tackler go down, the tackler must release the ball carrier, and the ball carrier must release the ball. Failure to do either of these things results in a penalty.

Step 3: The Battle Begins

Once the initial contest goes to the ground, players from each side will bind together and attempt to possess the ball by driving opposing players away from the ball – the ‘tug of war’ begins, in other words.

This part can actually go on for several phases, especially if the ball isn’t immediately released or is otherwise concealed. Players from both sides (usually bound together, but not always) will charge in and attempt to move opponents away from the location of the ruck, until the ball is clearly designated as being on one team’s side.

Step 4: The Battle Finishes

When one side has pushed the other away from the ball enough to play it, one player will move the ball backwards with their boot (similar to how the ball is moved backwards in a scrum) and it’s played out by a teammate. The player who picks up the ball cannot be involved in the ruck.

These are the necessary steps for a ruck to occur. The time it takes to move from one stage to the next will vary from ruck to ruck, especially the time it takes for one team to clearly get possession of the ball.

Decisions, Decisions

Unless you’re the first player arriving, it’s a good idea to evaluate the ruck and decide if it needs another player. Remember, no player in a ruck can break away from it until the ball’s played out.

  • If your team already has four players in the ruck and the opposition only has two, there’s no need for you (or another player on your team) to join the ruck. All that does is eliminate one more player from being involved in play outside the ruck.
  • Same thing on defense. If your team is clearly outnumbered and lost possession of the ball, get back on defense. For the few moments before the players in the ruck rejoin the game, the defensive team has a numbers advantage over the offensive team.

Rucking Strategy

Because there are different roles in a ruck, there are different things that can be done to ensure each of the players in those roles are giving their team the best chance at coming out with the ball.

The Ball Carrier

The biggest impact the ball carrier can potentially have concerns how that player can give their team the best chance of retaining possession of the ball from a ruck. When getting taken to the ground, the ball carrier should try to roll into opposing players and place the ball backwards, away from opposing players. This both creates a barrier between the ball and other team and gives the ball carrier’s teammates an edge in possessing the ball.

Supporting Players

Anyone who goes into the ruck is there until the ruck is over, for better or worse. Although it’s legal for a single player to enter a ruck, it’s ideal to engage when at least two teammates are bound together. The more players bound together, the bigger and stronger an obstacle is created for the opposition to go through.

Counterattacking on Defense

The rules dictate that as soon as the ball carrier goes to the ground, he or she must release the ball. At that moment, there’s a small window where a nearby defensive player can come in and successfully contend (or take) possession of the ball. That player can immediately scoop up the ball, provided:

  1. they’re the first player to the spot;
  2. the defending player is on his/her feet; and
  3. they possess the ball before any of the ball carrier’s teammates engage and officially create a ruck.

Making a play quickly is crucial, because even if the defensive player successfully possesses the ball, it’ll be very hard to keep possession of the ball without teammates nearby.

Win Rucks, Win Games

Possession is crucial in rugby. Because the ball is up for grabs at almost any time, the ability to both get and retain possession of it directly impacts a team’s success. Rucks provide an excellent opportunity for both sides to battle for control of the ball, making the ability to win at the ruck a very important skill for players to master.

Share the knowledge