Is everything up for grabs when it comes to tackling in rugby? Can you grab shirts in rugby to slow your opponents down or stop them in their tracks?
Grabbing shirts used to be more common, as defenders desperately tried to make a last-ditch tackle.
Why does it seem to have disappeared from the sport? Read on for the answers.
Can You Grab Shirts In Rugby To Make A Tackle?
You can grab your opponent’s shirt below the collar in senior rugby if they have the ball.
However, it is a very ineffective way of tackling, as ball carriers are likely to break free and continue their momentum.
Grabbing the collar can be penalized as a high tackle.
Shirt and collar pulling are less common in the sport as modern shirts are both tight-fitting and lack separate collars.
Discouraged at youth level
At youth level, referees will likely penalize players who grab an opponent by the shirt and sling them to the ground.
This can be deemed as dangerous play and should be discouraged at this level.
Even without any potentially dangerous consequences, shirt-grabbing may be penalized at youth level to encourage proper tackling techniques.
When Is Grabbing A Shirt Always Illegal In Rugby?
You can’t tackle a player in rugby who isn’t the ball carrier.
Therefore, grabbing the player’s shirt is also considered to be tackling the player without the ball. This is a penalty kick infringement.
That doesn’t stop players trying a sneaky shirt-grab when they’re racing side by side with their opponent, desperate to beat them to the ball.
Back before there were a hundred cameras at professional rugby matches, the sneaky pull was a far more common occurrence.
There was a good chance that the referee and linesmen were following the ball and wouldn’t see an incident in the periphery.
But the best referees are on the watch out, particularly when a forward and a winger are in a foot race.
Illegal shirt grabs
This video shows an example from a semi-final of a European championship back in 2009, before the advent of the TMO.
It’s two Irish teams going toe to toe, but the two opposing players were Wallaby back row Rocky Elsom and All Black winger Dougie Howlett.
That’s a non-contest when racing for the ball. So, Elsom tries the cheeky sneaky shirt grab.
You probably won’t see it in the first few seconds of real-time in this video.
So, it’s worth taking a second to be impressed by Nigel Owens, one of the great referees of the game. Then you can watch the slow-mo, where the shirt pull is almost cartoonish in being so blatant.
Shirt grabbing versus blocking
Rocky Elsom could probably have been a little more subtle about putting Dougie Howlett off his stride.
The problem for the forward was that the All Blacks winger made it past him before he took any “action”.
Elsom had another sneaky option if he’d taken action before this point. A little nudge may have been less likely to be picked up by the referee.
This is known in other sports as running interference, but it has to be very subtle to work in rugby!
If you want to see examples in international matches where it is and isn’t penalized, take a look at our article on blocking in rugby.
Why Has Grabbing Shirts Gone Out Of Fashion?
You are far less likely to see shirts being grabbed in rugby now than twenty years ago. The main reason is a change in fashion.
Rugby shirts used to be made solely of cotton, a material that is much easier to grab a fistful. And although they may have been a little tight on prop forwards, they could be described as baggy compared to the modern polyester-mixed versions.
I’ll illustrate with two examples from the same player scoring a try against the same team – but separated by nine years.
This video clip starts with one of the three tries against France that launched Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll on the international scene. The jersey is almost billowing behind him as he touches down! This is juxtaposed with a try in 2009.
Sure, the player himself has filled out a bit! But the jersey is clearly very different.
Modern jerseys are designed to hug the skin and make life more difficult for the tackler.
Check out our article on why rugby players wear tight shirts!
Can You Grab The Shirt Collar In Rugby?
Grabbing the collar of an opponent’s shirt is very different from grabbing elsewhere on the jersey.
The refereeing in this scenario has changed markedly in recent years. A decade ago, you could put a hand on the player’s collar to slow their momentum a little and follow up quickly with a body tackle.
However, there is a huge emphasis now at all levels of the game on the protection of the head and neck area.
So, a collar grab will likely be penalized as a high tackle even at the senior level of the game.
Other Things To Grab
We’ve discussed how grabbing shirts is less common in the modern game. But what if you target something else?
Check out our article on grabbing the ball out of a player’s hands. This can be very effective, but it’s a difficult technique to master (we have some tips).
However, grabbing other body parts of players can be illegal. Stop laughing, I’m talking about hair. What if a player has a long pony tail?
Check out our article on whether players can by tackled by the hair in rugby. The answer is no, but we’ll get into some high-profile examples in international rugby.