A referee’s view: the breakdown


After being yellow-carded by French referee Jérôme Garcès in the second half in Dublin, James Haskell’s face had the look of a man who had been on the wrong end of a bad call. From what I’ve read over the last few days, there is pretty much a divided camp when it comes to this incident. Harsh? Unlucky? Wrong place, wrong time? Or just deserts for someone who knew exactly what he was doing? “Remember, he has form here”, some might say…

The breakdown/tackle area is probably the most challenging area of the game to officiate. A referee must make a quick, clear and confident decision. The demanding nature of this facet of the game means that there may well be a number infringements going on at once. With an toolbox of both experience and an encyclopedic knowledge of the laws, even a professional referee will have a tough time of getting every decision correct… let the armchair viewer decide and it becomes closer to a guessing game.

The last thing I want to do here is quote the IRB law book, but I think it’s worth summarising what the referee’s thought process might be in the context of the law… the logic being that at least we might get closer to assessing whether it was fair, taking the example of Haskell, to penalise and then yellow card.

So, the tackle: to paraphrase the law book, it is “when a ball carrier is held and brought to ground by an opposition player / players”. Once a tackle has been made, a number of things run through a referee’s mind:

1. Identify the tackler(s). They are his priority. They must immediately release the tackled player, get up or move away from both the tackled player and the ball. You usually won’t get points 2 and 3 below enforced if this priority has not been complied with.

2. Look at the tackled player to release, place or pass the ball immediately. The tackler must not impede the opposition’s effort to gain possession of the ball and he should get up/move away from it at once

3. In tandem with point 2 above, look at what arriving players are doing. The key point is whatever they are doing must be done on their feet and they must enter a tackle from an onside position (through the back foot of the tackle often referred to as “the gate”). Note that tackler(s) are not “arriving players” and do not need to “go through the gate” provided they have complied with point 1 above (which includes allowing the tackled player to do something with the ball, provided that tackled player does it immediately).

So the key points are tacklers release/move; tackled player release/move; arriving players on their feet and through the gate. You may well hear combinations of these words uttered by the referee as he tries to manage the tackle area and prevent players from infringing. Bear in mind that this is the TACKLE area; a ruck only forms when at least one player from each side are in contact on their feet over the ball, something I won’t get into here, but which is often a natural development of a tackle.

The sobering thought here is that a referee could in nearly all tackles, applying the letter of the law, award a penalty against either side. To do so would create a farce, so he must apply empathy and consider to some extent the intent of the players based on his experience (in a consistent manner). “Did 7 red go off his feet deliberately; was 6 blue really trying move away; did any actions have a MATERIAL effect on the progression of the game?”

So let’s return to Haskell. How well did he do when it came to the summary of his obligations at the tackle? Consider the referee’s priorities… he released the tackled player but did he move away from the tackled player and the ball immediately? He certainly looked to be trying and I guess there will always be debate about such instances: some would say: “yeah, look, he’s trying to get out of there!” Others would disagree, and in reality he could probably have moved away a little faster.

Taking it a step further, once the referee has made his decision that an offence has taken place, with Ireland moving forward quickly in a strong attacking position, the yellow card becomes an option because of the effect it has on the momentum of that passage of play, i.e. his view will be that Haskell cynically slowed Ireland down in a potential points-scoring attack.

So spare a thought for the ref – just to apply the Laws of the game is the easy bit. The challenge at the tackle (and there may be 100 or more during a game) is to apply some measure of common sense, empathy, materiality and experience such that the players have a meaningful contest.

To end on a philosophical level, consider the spectators: does the game owe them “entertainment?” It depends very much on how you define it and to whom the game is trying to appeal. One issue I foresee as rugby becomes a more global (and I would say money-driven) sport is whether the governing body (IRB) comes under enough pressure to simplify the game – perhaps more significant Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) than we have seen to date. Most of us would hope this will never happen but in the interests of attracting new audiences, it is certainly possible that areas such as the tackle and, of course, the scrum will be watered down to make it easier for the man on the street to understand… Rugby League, anyone?

By Will Thomas

Will is Welsh but lives in Devon. He is a passionate yet frustrated Wales supporter (not an uncommon breed) who has played the game to varying standards. After having to stop playing due to injury, he has been refereeing to a good standard for the last eight years in the South West (mostly Devon).

14 thoughts on “A referee’s view: the breakdown

  1. While this is a great article about how difficult it is to ref, James Haskell was binned for cynically kicking the ball away from Murray while moving away from the tackle area. If his legs hadn’t touched the ball he would have been fine.

      1. When I watched it live I wasn’t convinced he was getting a card, until he started arguing with the referee football style.

  2. Very good article outlining the thought processes of the ref at the breakdown. Most knowledgeable rugby fans know that at every breakdown there are numerous infringements which are potential penalties. What we want as a minimum from the ref is consistency in his decision making across the game, which Mr Garcès displayed, and ideally consistency across all referees, which is something which needs work.

    However, the Haskell yellow card is a poor example to use as he was binned for deliberately trying to kick the ball away from the scrum-half while lying in the ruck. Living on the edge of the laws is the nature of the flankers game and Haskell rolled the dice the way all flankers do and lost on that occasion. If he looked aggrieved it was probably more to do with getting caught and realising that he may have cost his team, given that the scores were level at the time.

    1. I dont think Garces was consistent at all. Maybe im just being Irish, but especially at scrum time.

      I know many might not have seen it, but I thought the ref at the 20’s game between Ireland and England was amazing. Didn’t get everything right, but was the most consistent I’ve ever seen.

  3. In response to the last paragraph I think all true rugby fans are in agreement that the complicated nature of the game is one of its main beauties. I’d hate to see the breakdown or scrums diluted and I hate the idea of refs being told to quickly penalise teams in this area simply to speed up the game.

  4. Really interesting article. It would be great to have a similar one on reffing of scrums. Personally I think scrums have been diluted into a collision lottery and would like them to become undiluted into a test of strength and technique. With it being a collision lottery it seems to me as if players are coached into how to con a penalty out of a ref rather than hit square and straight, bind and push.

  5. “Did 7 red go off his feet deliberately; was 6 blue really trying move away; ” – I know these are rhetorical questions, but I am pretty sure that the answers are always YES and NO respectively.

  6. On the last paragraph, which others have already agreed with, I rather think that one of the attractions of this game is its complexity. Friends who do not know the rules are still drawn to the game despite not having a clue what is happening at the breakdown, at the scrum or at the various offside lines that are used through different aspects of the game. In fact, they seem rather humoured by it all.

    Simplifying the game is not the answer to the question of how do we attract this game to a wider audience.

  7. Good article, I enjoyed that.

    Agree with others about Haskell – he was trying to kick the ball away and is not clever enough or a good enough actor to get away with it.

    Personally, I don’t want the laws made easier, as if watching a game with friends, when I shout at the tv something along the lines of “he’s isolated the refs going to blow”, “offside”, “obstruction”, etc etc and then the ref does blow for the aforesaid offence, it makes me look as though I know what I’m talking about! Make it simpler and they will all understand – I don’t want that.

    1. Sorry – just realised this makes me sound like Jonathan Davies. I’ll be shouting “get it wide” at the telly next or “it’s on”, etc, etc. :-) Oh and I like his commentary by the way. Also a fan of Brian Moore.

  8. A decent look at the breakdown, but more than one example could have been used to show the intricacies and how the decision can go either way.

    A cheap pop at Rugby League at the end though. The complex nature of some facets of Union don’t put people off, much like the ‘simpler’ rules of the tackle and scrum aren’t the only reasons fans watch in League.

  9. I think part of the problem is that there are a large number of “directives” coming in that contradict “laws” at the breakdown. So referees are now being much lighter on players coming off their feet at their own breakdown to make it easier to retain to promote attack. The problem is of course that this prevents turnovers and leads to some horrendously inconsistent refereeing.

    Having played at a much lower level of the game I can categorically say that what is refereed down at my level is almost a different sport to the top level but players trying to anticipate which set of rules the referee’s going to go by is causing a nuisance at the breakdown.

    Haskell’s yellow card was silly. He moved, the ball became available and the referee was happy, then he is “getting out of the way” again after the ball is near the scrum half and “accidentally” kicks the ball away. Can’t criticise the ref for that one.

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