Champions Cup Final – Racing’s Final Chance

Towards the very end of the Champions Cup final, Racing had a 19-phase possession that got them to within inches of a go ahead try. It all came to a grinding halt with an Exeter penalty when there was 74:46 on the clock. Racing would not have the ball again before the final whistle was sounded.

There was an awful lot going on at that final breakdown so worth slowing things down to see what all the players were up to.

Actions of Blue 8:
It was certainly a strong carry, one that brought the Racing number 8 to within inches of a try having picked a line between two Exeter defenders. There was just, for the briefest moment, the chance for a tip on pass to a couple of players outside him who may well have been able to go through a massive gap that had appeared in the Exeter defence.

Actions of Purple 20:
The ball carrier is brought to ground prior to P20 becoming involved. If he is not considered a tackler then he must stay on his feet. It is his presence diving onto the ball which prevents B8 from immediately placing it – either to stretch out and try and reach for the line or to place the ball back towards his supporting players. P20 also rolls B8 away from the incoming scrum half.

Actions of Blue 19:
Given the position of P20 on the ground it would be difficult for B19 to stay up himself but the laws require arriving players (whether this is considered a tackle or ruck situation) to remain on their feet. B19’s body position is always downward as he flops onto and over P20 before attempting to pull him back towards the Exeter goal line. B19 doesn’t move once on the ground but he is lying alongside the ball carrier rather than sealing off the ball. He does however make it harder for his teammate to place the ball back towards the scrum half.

Actions of Purple 13:
Another player who must remain on his feet. If it is considered entry to a ruck he must must bind onto a team-mate or an opposition player. The bind must precede or be simultaneous with contact with any other part of the body. P13 tucks his arm and does not bind as he makes contact with B19. He is also on his knees rather than remaining on his feet.

Actions of Blue 16:
The only one of the first four players to arrive to keep on his feet and off his knees – although he’s still not really even close to supporting his own body weight (not an easy thing to do when you’re binding onto a teammate on the ground mind you…)

Secondary actions of P19:
Having executed a superb, try-saving tackle P19 is required to immediately release the ball and ball-carrier and move away from the tackled player and the ball. P19 chooses to maximise his utility here by rolling round to the left hand-side, over the tackled players legs. This movement also takes him into the path of the approaching Racing scrum half. P19 compounds by rising up slightly, catching B9 between his legs and dragging the opposition player round towards the Exeter line.

Actions of B21:
For some reason the Racing scrum half decides to try and leap over P19 – which actually takes him away from the ball. He then gets tangled up with P19 and dragged round the other side of the ball towards Exeter’s goal line.

Actions of P21:
Having pushed off from the previous ruck, P21 takes the shortest possible route back towards the tackle and breakdown. He is very careful to get his feet behind the goal line – which crucially is the offside line for him in this situation. After having a quick look, P21 can see the (ball still on top of B8, still not placed back on the Racing side) and decides to have a nibble.

Now I am no referee but there are potential cases here to penalize:

  • P20 for going off feet. If considered foul play, there would be a strong case for a penalty try and yellow card on the basis that his illegal actions prevented a probable try from being scored. At full speed the argument in favour of the Exeter player would be that he was an assist tackler and rolled away from ball and man once he had helped complete the tackle.
  • B19 for going off feet. Wayne Barnes did an interesting video around this very subject recently. It would be a tough call given how far down B19 has to get to try and clear out the Exeter player but his body position is always downwards. There would have been a lot of similar clearouts let go across the rest of the match though.
  • P13 for going off feet and for charging into an opposition player without binding on.
  • B16 for going off feet. The Racing hooker is the player who makes the biggest effort to stay on his feet and given he has to bind on to someone when joining the ruck and the first player he comes to is on the ground it’s difficult to see what else he could do. Players involved in all stages of a ruck must have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips though – the sanction for this is a free-kick.
  • P19 for not clearing out of the tackle area quickly enough. This looks worse in slow motion. More damning might be how much impact P19’s decision to roll the long way round and to rise up, increasing his impact on the Racing scrum half.
  • P21 for hands in the ruck. This is the one that has had the most attention given it was the Exeter scrum half who in fact won the penalty. The crucial points must be whether the ball was in a ruck that had not been completed and whether he was in a legal position to for the ball. As noted above the goal line is his offside line. As to whether it was a ruck – see below
  • B8 for holding on to the ball on the ground – this is the penalty that was given. Initially B8 looks like he is going to try and reach for the line but the actions of P20 stop any chance of that. B8 then tries to roll the other way to place the ball but a combination of the impacts from the opposition and, more relevantly, his own players, prevent him from moving and he is stuck on his back with the ball on his chest. When B21 gets hands on the ball, B8 continues to hold on.

Definition of a ruck:
A ruck is formed when at least one player from each team are in contact, on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground.

There is definitely a case that at no point is there a player from each team on their feet over the ball – there are certainly a bunch of players off their feet in and around the ball. If it is not considered to be a ruck formed then it is a tackle situation and players are entitled to attack the ball as long as they are onside and on their feet.

In fact, Nigel Owens has now confirmed that he judged that there was no ruck formed – there was not a player from each team in contact, on their feet and over the ball. As it was a tackle situation any onside players on their feet were entitled to go for the ball. P21’s positioning on the goal line meant he was entitled to go for the ball and the ‘hands off’ call from the referee was aimed at any players on the ground who were not entitled to hold onto possession.

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