The ankle tap or tap tackle is usually a last-ditch effort in Rugby Union to bring down an opponent racing to score a try. It’s illegal in some similar sports but is allowed in rugby.
There are ways to make ankle taps more effective, and ways to beat them! Let’s take a look at a few examples, and then get into the details.
What Is An Ankle Tap Tackle?
This tackle is also commonly called an “ankle tap” or a “tap tackle”.
An ankle tap tackle in rugby occurs when the defender slaps or taps the foot of the ball carrier and causes them to lose balance. Technically, it’s not a “tackle” as the ball carrier isn’t wrapped and held by the defender. However, it is legal contact in Rugby Union as long as the defender isn’t on the ground when making the tap.
Here’s a quick video showing three different ankle tap tackles. The first one is a little unusual, as the defender uses his outer forearm. The second two use an arm sweep, which is more common to see.
Different sports have different rules for ankle taps
Before I go into more details about ankle taps, I’ll quickly address how other related sports deal with them.
Are ankle taps allowed in Rugby League?
You may be surprised to learn that they are strictly illegal in Rugby League, the sport that has most in common with Rugby Union.
There is an explicit code under dangerous play in League that states “that ankle taps are not permitted.”
Are ankle taps allowed in Australian Rules Football?
AFL is another sport played with the oval ball, although it is largely confined down under.
The rules that govern tackling say that the tackle “must be executed below the shoulders and above the knees”. As our ankles are below the knees…tap tackles are illegal.
Are ankle taps allowed in American Football?
This is one of the areas that rugby union has in common with American Football: ankle taps are perfectly legal. However, they are a much rarer sight in the NFL than on a rugby pitch.
They are also referred to as shoestring tackles.
When Is An Ankle Tap Tackle Illegal In Rugby Union?
Unlike rugby league, there is currently no mention of ankle taps in the Laws of Rugby Union. However, they are governed by the general laws that cover contact between a defender and the ball carrier.
You can’t tackle or attempt to make a tackle when you are off your feet. I bolded the “attempt” part because technically a tap tackle isn’t a completed tackle.
This can lead to a fine line for referees. Let’s say you’re the defender and you’ve launched yourself in a last-ditch attempt to make the tap tackle. You’re at full stretch, one arm flailing, and are delighted when you see the ball carrier stumble and fall.
But the referee blows a sharp blast on the whistle! Why?
If you hit the ground a split second before your hand taps your opponent’s ankle, then you’ve attempted to tackle while off your feet. This is an infringement, and a penalty kick to the opposition.
In my experience, the unfortunate defender has to be sprawled out on the field in a very obvious way for the referee to give the penalty.
Tap Tackles Are Less Effective Than Standard Tackles
Broadly speaking, ankle taps are last-ditch efforts to stop an opponent. If a defender has a choice, they would always choose to wrap their arms around the ball carrier’s legs and bring the player to the ground.
This is because it is a far less effective method of stopping the ball carrier than a standard tackle. When players’ legs aren’t held, they are entitled to keep running.
Even if they stumble and fall to the ground, the defender hasn’t held them in that position. So ball carriers are entitled to jump to their feet and hare off running for the try line.
How To Make Your Tap Tackles More Effective
The most effective tap tackles put the opponent so off-balance that they sprawl to the ground. Hopefully, don’t just face plant, they also drop the ball. The watching fans will be delighted.
In general, the most destructive tap is when you can tap one foot in a way that it hits the other. Your opponent is unlikely to regain balance when both feet are affected.
But you aren’t finished yet. Don’t stay stretched out on the field while your opponent hops merrily to their feet and races away.
A tap tackle gives you a second chance to make the more effective tackle. Work hard to bounce to your feet and bring the ball carrier to the ground.
But you must be careful with this second attempt to tackle. You can’t just jump onto your opponents while they are still prone on the field. That is also an infringement. Time your tackle carefully to make contact when the ball carrier is rising from the ground.
How To Beat An Ankle Tap
Now, the situation is reversed. You’re the player racing away with the ball with the try line in sight.
You’re already thinking about whether you’ll coolly dot the ball down and trot back to the halfway line with a polite nod to your opponents. Or if you’ll break out that cool series of handshakes that you practiced with your winger.
There is nothing worse than having your flying feet taken away from under you. So, how do you avoid this?
Accelerate and out-pace
This is for you if you’re a winger. Hopefully, the defender trying to chase you down is a prop.
The non-secret is to push the accelerator and hit your top speed for a few golden seconds. Burn your opponents for pace, and then you can ease down a little to save your hamstrings.
Well-timed hitch kick
If you’re not familiar with the term “hitch kick”, it’s a little hop or skip that alters your running rhythm. It is often enough to mess with the focus and aim of the defender, who simply misses their target (i.e. your ankle).
This is probably the best choice for a forward when you know another forward is trying to chase you down.
The aim is to swerve or sidestep as the defender is diving for your ankle.
Sidestepping at speed is probably best reserved for backs. It requires the kind of dexterity that would otherwise have forward tripping over their own feet!
What Exactly Is The Law?
I’ve mentioned that you won’t find ankle taps mentioned in the laws of rugby.
This leads people to wonder why ankle tips are allowed but foot trips are a serious infringement. A foot trip is considered dangerous play and can result in a red card as well as a penalty.
The obvious difference is that the trip is with the foot, while the ankle tap is with the hand.
In practice, we know that ankle taps rarely result in injury. The most likely outcome of a successful tap is the bruised ego of the ball carrier. Therefore, there has been no move in rugby to take them out of the game.
A technical “push”
There are some very pedantic debates amongst rugby referees about the legality of ankle taps.
The most common argument is to say that they come under the category of a push. The laws state that players “can tackle, hold or push an opponent holding the ball”.
But pushing isn’t always legal, either. If you want a more in-depth look, we have an article on when you can or can’t push in rugby.
And here’s where the pedants come out to play, the ones who try to argue that a push is completely different from a tackle. This is the type of argument I’ve encountered:
They’re not the same! He pushed the door, he tapped the door. They are quite different things.Rugby pedant in a public hostelry
The trick is to go to the bar and buy the next round.