The Whiteboard Sessions: Rucks

Written by Morné Nortier (Morné)

Posted in :Original Content on 15 Sep 2008 at 16:17

Through my involvement over the years with various coaches, players and technical analysis, I will from time to time visit different areas of play where I believe we get it wrong, or could improve our game.

The ruck or tackled area is arguably one of the most contentious areas of the modern game.

So much is left to interpretation by the referees but equally, players are their own worst enemies.

South African rugby in particular sucks on the hind-tit in this department in my view simply because we get it wrong technically. Our skills are not adapted to suit the modern game in the ruck situation.

This is not because we lack the necessary skills in my belief, but more to the fact that we do not appreciate the ruck for what it is intended for.

Rucks are the foundation of multiple phased play, and if done correctly will create space for opposition to attack. How effective, and importantly, quickly, we set up and clear these rucks will determine how successful you are.

Defence in rugby is arguably one of the areas of the game that has evolved the most. It is a lot more organised and even believed to win you games!

Logically that in itself is an absurd statement because I am yet to see a defence score you tries but let’s leave it at that other than to add one thing, and that is our defensive mindsets is what probably contributes most to our mindsets when it comes to rucks.

Technically I cannot define or explain rucks any simpler than to point out that it is supposed to be a ‘dynamic’ phase or area of the game. However, in South African rugby, rucks more often than not is a static phase of our game.

The main reason for this is South African rugby players will rather tend to go to ground at a ruck situation, than stay on their feet. Once this happens the ball becomes static, hence the phase or area of the game becomes static.

This directly results in movement of play stopping and depending on the time it takes to clear the ruck, momentum has to be built up from scratch again because your defenders had time to re-align.

I therefore find it amusing how we put so much emphasis on the fact how teams go through 5 to 10 phases of play thinking they are actually in control and ‘building’. The fact remains, if you become static, no matter if you are in phase 1 or 10, you are not building on anything, you start from scratch.

This is also why the attacking team sometimes looks clueless after more than 3 phases. Simple fact is because they have becomes static, defenders have much more time to re-align and truth be told, it is easier to organise defences and defensive lines than it is to organise good attacking platforms – the time needed is much less.

The idea of a ruck as a dynamic phase or area should be to continually have your ball carrier with his support runners cross the advantage line and drive defenders back. Cleaning effectively from there and continue to do this through 3 or 4 phases.

But for that, the mindset and skills of the attacking side has to be to stay on their feet for as long as possible driving through tackles supported by his ‘drivers’ (players supporting the player to stay in his feet, protect the ball or eliminate potential poachers off the ball or ball carrier) who then become cleaners as soon as the ‘mini-maul’ goes down.

Legally defenders are constantly retreating and when the ball goes to ground and having ‘drivers’/cleaners already supporting the ball carrier, they can and must only enter through the ‘gate’ giving the ball carrier more time to protect and place the ball effectively.

In the South African game two things stop us from doing this.

Firstly as mentioned, our players simply go to ground too quickly and too easily and when doing so, struggles to place the ball correctly with opposition defenders hands and feet all over them.

Secondly, in multiple phased play the tendency for specifically backline players is not to engage in rucks but rather fall out and into the backline again waiting for the next play. These players are more often than not the closest support players to the ball carrier and should commit to supporting them first before anything else.

Smaller things include cleaners over extending in the ruck, meaning they clean too far off the ball (taking players out way beyond the ruck) and exposing the ball as well as player not presenting the ball correctly at the ruck.

But for rucks in our game to become dynamic and set up attacking platforms we will need to realise that we need to avoid becoming static too often and allowing defences to set. Your success rate on bridging and breaking defences is simply too low. And for that we need to realise that a ball on the ground is anyone’s ball, but a ball in the air is the possession of the team carrying it.


  • Good point about the backline players. They need to get stuck into rucks more often. These days they’re as big as loose-forwards anyway.
    We lose a lot of momentum waiting for our forwards to get to each and every ruck.

  • Comment 1, posted at 15.09.08 16:31:05 by CapeShark Reply
    The Great Couch Shark
  • great article , thanks…. the refs being strict on the ‘staying on your feet’ rule this year will definitely end up being more beneficial to SA rugby than anybody else

  • Comment 2, posted at 15.09.08 16:52:56 by spykerbaard Reply

  • I would argue that that players not placing the ball correctly at the ruck is our single biggest weakness.

  • Comment 3, posted at 15.09.08 17:10:52 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
  • “I am yet to see a defence score you tries ” – what about offensive defence, where you put in such a big tackle or pressure as to force a knock-on or missed pass or intercept? The defender then picks up the ball and scores…..

    I’d have to say that RWCs were won more than once by the best defensive sides, not necessarily the best attacking sides.

  • Comment 4, posted at 15.09.08 17:15:53 by Baldrick Reply

  • @robdylan (Comment 3) : And other personal bugbear is the scrumhalf taking an age to assess his options and then the oppo counter-ruck and steal the ball that was begging to be used in the first place.

    What Morne i saying is true though, ball from the rucks should come out quickly, kept alive.

  • Comment 5, posted at 15.09.08 17:18:21 by Baldrick Reply

  • @Baldrick (Comment 5) : which is why quick decision-making and good positional play are far more important to a scrumhalf than “game-breaking abilities”… Kind of backs up my view that all our best flyhalves are currently playing 9.

  • Comment 6, posted at 15.09.08 17:40:24 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
  • MorneN, this is a seriously great article. It should be pinned up in every rugby coaching room around the country. 😉 😉 😉 😉 😉

  • Comment 7, posted at 15.09.08 18:31:36 by Silver Fox Reply

    Silver Fox
  • All I can try to clarify for you is the defensive try. The only time that happens is when the tackle is so effective that the ball is dislodged in the tackle, scooped up by the next guy who may score a try. However, although it is a good thing to have that type of defense, I am inclined to agree with your take on the matter.

  • Comment 8, posted at 15.09.08 18:35:52 by Silver Fox Reply

    Silver Fox
  • @robdylan (Comment 3) :

    I tend to agree with that, I was amazed at how well Wickus v Heerden places the ball at the tackle. 😯

    I then looked at the other players and couldn’t see one who made the effort to have his arms out straight as well as Wickus did.

  • Comment 9, posted at 15.09.08 19:06:29 by KSA Shark © Reply

    KSA Shark ©
  • I was pleased to see our backline players gettin actively involved in the rucks in our last 3N game. For me having the closest guys securing the ball correctly is more effective than waiting for a bunch of forwards to tumble over the ruck.

  • Comment 10, posted at 15.09.08 19:06:45 by just blackshark Reply

    blackshark - I'm back!
  • SECURE- PRESENT-DISTRIBUTE…and waste as little time as possible. Great article Morne- I hope our coaches go over this critical part of the game ad nauseam.

  • Comment 11, posted at 15.09.08 19:09:59 by just blackshark Reply

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  • @just blackshark (Comment 10) : Right. And if that is done properly, then you can commit less forwards to the rucks. The quick okes should be close in support while the stragglers( called that only because they would have been at the bottom of the previous ruck )should fill in for the back(s) committed to the rucks. Get enough players at the breakdown quickly and the rest are history!!!

  • Comment 12, posted at 15.09.08 19:15:42 by Silver Fox Reply

    Silver Fox
  • @KSA Shark © (Comment 9) :
    Look at Bismark du Plessis for example – he loves wrestling in the tackle, and is a powerful bugger, but his presentation of the ball makes him a poor ball carrier half the time.

    SA players run too upright, dont drive forward in pods, and seldom look to offload in the tackle, or step slightly away from the tackle.

    This is what makes Adi Jacobs so special.

  • Comment 13, posted at 15.09.08 19:50:12 by Big Fish Reply
    Big Fish
  • @Big Fish (Comment 13) : Another incredibly effective technique is spinning through the tackle, which few of our guys do

  • Comment 14, posted at 15.09.08 19:52:21 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
  • @robdylan (Comment 14) : Ive seen MR BEAST executing a few of those…probably from his loosie days. 😆

  • Comment 15, posted at 15.09.08 20:27:31 by just blackshark Reply

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  • @robdylan (Comment 14) :
    Right you are – any thing to make yourself harder to stop; I used it to great effect when my ex was on the rampage.

    Instead our boys try to run you over – or fall over in the attempt.

  • Comment 16, posted at 15.09.08 20:32:02 by Big Fish Reply
    Big Fish
  • Wrt to the placing of the ball its amazing how little squeeze ball (putting ti through your legs) we do in SA.

  • Comment 17, posted at 15.09.08 21:53:41 by VinChainSaw Reply
  • Oh, and great article Morne.

  • Comment 18, posted at 15.09.08 21:54:20 by VinChainSaw Reply
  • @VinChainSaw (Comment 17) :

    Hadn’t even thought about that, but yip you are spot on.

  • Comment 19, posted at 15.09.08 21:58:25 by KSA Shark © Reply

    KSA Shark ©
  • Sorry gents had to write and dash yesterday.

    Breaking my own tradition when it comes to writing I think I will expand a bit on the above given some comments. Unfortunately white board sessions like these can turn into 15 page articles which is why I cannot cover everything in one piece.

    Dynamic Phases

    The comments above are very fair but let me just touch on one or two things.

    I think firstly when you read ‘dynamic’ as in dynamic rucks or dynamic phases think movement. The idea behind creating something dynamic in rugby is to constantly shift points. Points of collisions, points of attack and points of defence.

    The opposite in this sense then would be static and this is what you want to avoid.

    I cringe whenever commentators say that they need to slow things down and set it up again. That basically means you are starting from nothing.

    To keep things dynamic you concentrate on two things. Giving you options by shifting points, and creating time.

    Defence crucially relies on two main things, communication and time. What you want to achieve as an attacking side is disrupt communications by shifting points (collisions, attack, etc.) and cutting down the oppositions time. By cutting down their time you effectively create more for yourself. More time for your decision makers to assess and attack space effectively.

    Not to go all Einstein on your asses but each team operates in the same space and time, i.e. for 5 minutes I attack they will defend for 5 minutes. If I can cut down their time that means I get more…

    Okay I will leave it at that.

    Now in order to do this, cut down their communication and time, you need dynamic (moving) ball.


    You will notice I said defence does not score you points and see this in context. Of course as some comments above suggested defence more or less won World Cup’s, or even other big tournaments and we know that Jake White was a big believer in offensive defence.

    But also now remember that defence, as mentioned, relies on two things. Communication and time.

    In addition, defence is a mindset, and because of this mindset you tend to attack with the view to defend as-well. Sounds a bit silly but I do not know how to explain it in any other way.

    The beauty of dynamic rugby however, or a more attacking mindset is that you can implement without losing or sacrificing defence or solid defensive structures. You do however, more often than not, sacrifice attacking rugby in favour of playing a defensive, or more static game.

    When you play dynamic rugby you have two scenarios. I attack, and I defend. When you play a more static version of the game however, you have one scenario. I defend, and I attack to defend.

    Now without video this is difficult to explain but challenge yourself to think back on how Jake’s team played most of the time, and how the All Blacks played during the same period.


    Rob is quite correct that our presentation skills at the breakdown is something we get wrong 90% of the time. It is stuff we are taught from primary school, body before ball type of drills. The problem however does also come in that the tackled player, has great difficulty to present the ball effectively because of legs and arms of opposition (rather than his own players) all over him when he goes to ground.

    And this yet again comes down to how I tried to explain the drivers (some call them snakes) and how they are crucial not only to assist the ball carrier to stay on his feet and drive over the advantage line but also to clean and protect once it does go to ground.

    Someone once mentioned to me that all our rugby players, especially backs need to get wrestling lessons by a wrestling pro to learn how to effectively enter and compete/defend in a ruck – and I cannot agree more. Our techniques suck here but it is largely due to support.

    Oh and of course cleaning out too far off the ball is also a massive problem. There is no point cleaning opposition players 3 meters off the ball. It might look great on TV but all you are doing is exposing the ball and the tackled player for the next guy to come in and pick up the exposed ball. That of course in addition of taking yourself out of the game.

  • Comment 20, posted at 16.09.08 08:29:26 by MorneN Reply
  • @MorneN (Comment 20) :

    Did you mean to post that as an article? 😉

  • Comment 21, posted at 16.09.08 08:33:13 by KSA Shark © Reply

    KSA Shark ©
  • @KSA Shark © (Comment 21) :

    Nope, but it just gives you an idea how long the original piece could have been! 🙂

  • Comment 22, posted at 16.09.08 08:43:12 by MorneN Reply
  • Morne on the ‘wrestling’ bit… I seem to remember one of the RWC sides attaining the services of an ex ‘ju-jitsu’ champ (possibly even an ex UFC fighter) for that very purpose…

  • Comment 23, posted at 16.09.08 09:02:46 by bryce_in_oz Reply

  • @bryce_in_oz (Comment 23) :

    Burger, Beast, Bis, Bakkies, Smith cleaning out at rucks/mauls with a few of Jezza Corbell moves would be awesome… lol!

  • Comment 24, posted at 16.09.08 09:07:45 by bryce_in_oz Reply

  • Jake White was a big believer in offensive defence.

    OLD SAYING: The best form of defence is offence.

  • Comment 25, posted at 16.09.08 09:47:18 by just blackshark Reply

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  • @just blackshark (Comment 25) :

    Problem is, when you rely on defence to win you games you rely on luck.

    How many tackles dislodges a ball, and where does that ball travel too? What is the success rate of you winning possession and scoring from it? 50%, 40, 30 20?

    How much are you in control of your fate (scoring points) when you have to rely on defence and ‘possibly’ mistakes the opposition makes?

    Defensive rugby is a lottery.

    You will not end up with a win ratio of 75% + playing that type of rugby.

  • Comment 26, posted at 16.09.08 09:50:20 by MorneN Reply
  • @MorneN (Comment 26) : My point exactly… defence should be used to protect points that are already on the board.

    In every game you WILL have to ATTACK and DEFEND…that’s given. The skill is to find the balance between the two. The ratio will depend on your strengths and weaknesses as well as those of your opponents…but you can’t go into EVERY game with a defensive mentality.

  • Comment 27, posted at 16.09.08 10:06:24 by just blackshark Reply

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  • @just blackshark (Comment 27) :


  • Comment 28, posted at 16.09.08 10:09:11 by MorneN Reply

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