How the Ruck Works

July 11, 2023

One of the most common occurrences in a rugby game is a ruck. To most people, it looks a lot like a dog pile on the ball carrier and at a basic level, they’re kind of right.

In reality, the ruck is a competition for the ball that takes place after the ball carrier is tackled. A completed tackle is when one or more players take the ball carrier to the ground. Being grounded is defined as having at least one knee on the ground while another player is touching you. While in possession of the ball, if a player is not touching you, you can place the ball on the ground, pick it up and keep going.

Once the tackle is completed the ball carrier has one move- to place the ball back on their side of the ruck or the side closer towards their try-line. Since you don’t have much control over how you fall there are a few different methods of placing the ball. One is called the shrimp, where your body is at a 90-degree angle with your back pointing towards the opposition try line and your legs facing your try line, you then place the ball back by your ankles. The other method is where you lie face down with your head pointing towards the opposition try-line and push the ball between your legs.  

While the ball carrier is placing the ball, players on the defensive team are allowed to try and steal the ball. However, firstly the tackler must roll out of the way; they are not allowed to block the ball carrier placing the ball or obstruct the players coming to clear the ruck. There are a few methods for stealing the ball. The 1st is the jackal, once the ball has been placed by the ball carrier a defensive player is allowed to pick it up unless a ruck has been formed. A ruck is considered formed when one player from each team has joined, so as long as the defensive player is there first and on their feet supporting their body weight they are allowed to use their hands to grab the ball. The defensive player can either try and rip the ball out of the attacker’s hand turning the ball over outright or just pin the ball to the attacker and try and force a penalty, of which there are many. 

The attacking team must prevent the defending team from stealing the ball. This is done through a combination of clearing and then sealing the ruck. Cleaning the ruck is when attacking players tackle or push the players, who are trying to steal the ball, away from the tackled player. There are rules for clearing rucks, players must be on their feet, use their arms when making contact with a defensive player, have to enter the ruck perpendicular to the sideline, etc. Clearing the ruck is generally the responsibility of the 1st player arriving at the ruck, the second player seals the ruck. Sealing the ruck occurs once it has been cleared, sealing the ruck prevents the defense from contesting for the ball again. To seal a ruck the attacking player puts their forearms on the ball carrier, their legs are braced behind them at 90 degrees with their upper body and there is also a 90-degree bend at the knees.

Once the ruck is sealed that usually is the end of the competition for the ball. However, there is still one final way the defense can win the ball; Counter-Rucking. Since a ruck is formed players who arrive at the breakdown cannot use their hands to try and get the ball immediately. They must shove the person sealing the ruck off of it. This is done by hitting the shoulder of the sealer and trying to drive them off the ruck. Then the 2nd defensive player arriving can step over and try and get the ball. The same rules for rucking apply to counter-rucking players: they must be on their feet, use their arms when making contact with a player, have to enter the ruck perpendicular to the sideline, be supporting their weight, etc. Counter-rucking is extremely difficult to do, its success requires immense strength so it’s rare to see a successful counter-ruck.  

Once the ruck is won the attacking team’s scrum-half moves in and passes the ball for the next attacking phase. While the defenders get back up to their feet and set their line for the next phase. Most defensive teams guard the ruck with one player on either side of the ruck to prevent the scrum-half from picking and going. Then the scrum-half is generally just behind the ruck to organize the defensive line.

Winning the ruck is one of the most basic parts of a rugby game; fail to do that and there is a good chance you’ll lose the game. 

Alexander MacDonald:

Former Rooster, current Journalism student at Arizona State’s Cronkite School, 3rd-year scrum-half and social manager for ASU Rugby.