Blog: How to referee the non-ruck

How should we referee the non-ruck? After the fun and games of last weekend’s RBS 6 Nations match at Twickenham, where Italy didn’t engage in post tackle ruck formation, we now need to think about the implications for referees of all levels this weekend.

We’ve done some of the thinking for you! Here’s’s top 6 tips on how to referee the non-ruck


1) Know the law!

Simple eh!?! Some referees claim not to have read the whole law book (yes, we’re looking at you Nigel…) but it helps to know and understand the key bits!

  • Law 15 covers what constitutes a tackle and the obligations of ball carrier, tackler and others
  • Law 16 covers what constitutes a ruck, and amongst other bits, what happens when there is a ruck, and how a ruck ends successfully
  • Law 10 covers foul play

In this issue, these are the main bits to get your head around. You can download the 2017 Law book here

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2) Understand the implications of the law

As we saw last weekend, piecing all these bits of law together can cause confusion from many parties!

Firstly – is there a tackle? And do all participants comply with tackle law? If so, we can move on. In law, this is now open play, but still restrictions on players getting involved in that tackle zone (about 1m around the tackle)

Secondly – does a ruck form as per law?

  • Yes – Happy days! Offside lines along the back foot kick in and Eddie Jones gets happier.
  • Yes – then you really need to know the law about how a ruck can end successfully. Players leaving the formed ruck isn’t one way of doing that. Therefore, if you have a ruck, but one side’s players all leave, the ruck still exists and therefore offside lines continue. (see point 5!)
  • Yes – But was there foul play involved? ie has Law 10 been infringed by ‘defending’ players grabbing an opponent in order to create a ruck. Law 16.2b (joining a ruck) says opponents must bind (using “whole arm in contact from hand to shoulder”) to teammate or opponent.
  • No – So who can do what?
  • Law 15.6g says the next player of the ball (acting scrum half) can now be tackled, but only if the new tackler comes from the right angle. That’s why, the Italian players were generally making a nuisance of themselves, rather than going for the new ball carrier

3) Get your mental pictures right

What do you expect to see in these game areas? If you’ve prepared and have a clear picture in your mind, you can then process what you actually see against that mental picture.

The law book helpfully includes pictures so you can build those mental images up.

4) Use the pre game to your advantage!

Use the time you have at your disposal when you arrive at your game, or during the warm up to see if you can identify whether a side might try this tactic (or any other).  You can often tell from the way a team warms up what their plans may be. You could always ask them straight out, so you can be ready from the off.

To be fair, if you offer advice to one side before a game, consider volunteering that advice to the other team. If you’re merely asked a “yes/no” question, there’s nothing to pass on!

5) Communicate

As you do in other areas of the game, consider what words and phrases you might use if this sort of thing happens.

What are you going to say/call when those mental pictures you’ve created happen in front of you?

Obviously, you have to make sure you’re in the right place to communicate at the breakdown. You can’t do it effectively from 30m away! And you’ll be able to see the play happen in front of you and communicate appropriately. If you’re finding you’re not getting to the breakdown quickly enough, do some appropriate fitness training. (more to come on on that aspect soon!)

Choose your words clearly and be concise:

  • Is it a tackle? Perhaps call “tackle” or “tackle only” – although you need to consider if you do it once, you may need to do it 100 more times in a match
  • If you have a ruck, you need to communicate that – call “Ruck”
  • If you had a ruck, and it hasn’t ended successfully as per law, you need to communicate that – call “Still a ruck!” It may not look right but it is!
  • Don’t over communicate – this will differ depending on your style and the age/capability of the game you’re refereeing

Use any stoppages to answer any questions (if asked in an appropriate tone!) but keep answers to what it says in law, not what could be described as coaching!

6) Be consistent

As ever, you need to ensure that what you do is the same throughout the game, and for both sides.



We hope that advice is helpful as you start to think about your games this weekend.  If you want any more hints and tips, let us know!


Happy Whistling!
Disclaimer: This isn’t official advice from any particular Union or Referees Association or Society who may wish issue local advice. We merely aim to help and these opinions are ours. 


  1. If a ruck is formed and all players went off their feet except for the unbound attacking 9 who was going to collect the ball, can an opposition player act like a 9 as well (ie not bound and not trying to ruck the attacking 9) and go for the ball? Seems to me the answer is no. So the ruck is then won when everyone is off their feet rolling away. You could have situation where the ball is on the ground on its own, the ruck is won and all players rolled away. Seems strange the ball on its own and the ruck exists! Players seem confused about this ruck ending/won law as well as me.

    • If all players went off their feet, I’d be looking at why (players should be attempting to stay up).

      Anyway, the direct answer to your question is yes, they could, providing they come through the gate and stay on their feet.

      Pragmatically, it feels like in this scenario, as a referee Id be calling “it’s a mess, it’s a ruck, scrum, attacking ball”.

  2. I have a video of what is confusing me and others. See the link (apologies if it is upsidedown on windows, try mac or tilt head :)) The ruck eventually collapses and the Sale player is itching to go for the ball yet the ref verbally holds him back. My understanding from this is that:

    1) Ruck formed and players all ended up off their feet.
    2) Ball is still in the ruck and the ruck still exists since the ball has not come out
    3) If the Sale player wants to enter the ruck he is required to bind onto a teammate or opposition in the ruck and since nobody is left then somehow the ruck still exists yet there is nobody to bind to. He can’t bind to the Wasp player since that player is not rucking in that ‘ruck’.

    So I suppose the ruck is ‘won’ and he has a few seconds to get the ball out but the competition is over. It raises the question for me if the Sale player could act like a 9 and go for the ball without contacting the Wasp 9? Apparently no, since the Ref held him back.

    Every week watching the highlights I see this happening somewhere in a match and you can see professional players are confused.

    • Thanks Steve for the question. In the clip it’s seems to us that the “confused” Sale player is standing to the side of it so therefore if he went for the ball, he would have to do so from the side rather than through the gate. Far easier to manage him as the ref does here.

      If the ruck is won and ball secured then it’s better for all if the ball carrying team use it and we all move on.

      You’re right though that a defender who comes through the gate can step over and pick the ball up, providing he does so through the gate and without standing on anyone – not that easy in reality!!

  3. Hi fellow Referees, I have noticed a growing practice of attacking players who have secured the ball for it to be recycled from a ruck pulling off balance defenders off their feet onto their side of the ruck so that they cannot interfere with the ball or threaten the recycle. Any comments or observations on that practice.

    • Hi Andrew – great spot. And it’s one that is much criticised by some pretty high level coaches – the crocodile roll as its know. Google Ben Ryans thoughTs for one. It’s one I suspect WR are keeping an eye on

      • Hi, I was thinking not so much of the ‘saddle & roll’ or ‘crocodile roll’, but simply the attacking rucking player connecting with the defender whose momentum is travelling forward and pulling the attacker from his feet to the ground (similar to the actions of an ‘assist tackler’) so that they remain on their feet, but the defending rucking player lands on the attacking side of the ruck.

        • This shouldn’t really be allowed – sure players would argue it’s part of what they call a ruck. But providing it’s not dangerous, or denying the possibility of a legitimate contest for the ball then I guess it moves down the list of things to worry about.

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