Is A Dump Tackle Illegal In Rugby? (Examples)

If you watch old rugby videos, you’ll see dump tackles that are illegal in the modern game.

So, what’s changed? Are all dump tackles illegal in rugby now? Don’t be too disappointed! It’s possible, but technically difficult, to make a legal dump tackle. Let’s see what players can and can’t do.

The Original Dump Tackle

The definition of dump tackles has changed as the laws have penalized certain aspects of the sequence.

Here’s a quick description of the original dump tackle that was cheered to the rafters back in the day: the tackler lifts the ball carrier, pivots the player so his legs are above his head, and drives him toward the ground.

We’ll show you an example in the next section. But first, let’s look at how the laws and interpretation evolved within the last ten years.

Dump Tackles That Drive The Player To The Ground

These dump tackles were also known as spear tackles. The ball carrier was treated like a spear targeting an imaginary fish in the water. Unfortunately, the player was meeting hard ground instead of liquid!

Here is a dump tackle that is illegal now, but may not have been penalized in older games. Watch how the tackler pivots and drives the player down to the ground. We’ll slow it down for you after showing it in real time.

The tackling sequence

To break it all down, the tackler went through this sequence:

  1. makes contact head on with the ball carrier (i.e. not from the side or behind)
  2. crouches and wraps arms around the legs of the ball carrier
  3. heaves and lifts the ball carrier upward, as vertically as possible
  4. drives forward while keeping the ball carriers legs high, causing them to pivot
  5. continues to hold the player whose torso and head drop downward
  6. drives the player downards so they hit the ground hard, head or neck first

In the video, the player manages to tuck his head so his neck and shoulders hit the ground first.

In the nineties, this probably would have been judged to be a hard and fair tackle.

Why is this dump tackle illegal now?

One of the first changes in interpretation was to try and eliminate head and neck injuries. The governing body, World Rugby, emphasized that driving to the ground was dangerous play.

Dangerous play automatically brings a penalty. If the force was considerable, referees would upgrade this to a yellow or red.

Dump Tackles That Lift The Player’s Legs Above horizontal

With the focus on penalizing the drive, this meant that tacklers would simply let go at the top of the lift and allow the player drop from a height.

There isn’t a whole lot of difference with letting gravity do the job when the ball carrier has been pivoted to face head down toward the ground.

It’s accepted that when the tackler goes low (which is what the sport wants) in a head-on tackle, the ball carrier is likely to be lifted off his feet. The powers-that-be decided that the key was to ensure that the tackled player didn’t pivot so far that his feet were over his head.

This was referred to as the legs being “lifted above horizontal”. When you’re watching older matches, you may hear the referee use the phrase. Commentators still use the term to this day.

But the laws have been changed so that referees don’t need a virtual spirit level to measure the player’s angle in the air.

Current Laws Governing Dump Tackles

This is the relevant clause in the current laws of rugby.

A player must not lift an opponent off the ground and drop or drive that player so that their head and/or upper body make contact with the ground.

World Rugby

Notice how there’s nothing about legs past horizontal in this sentence. You won’t find that phrase anywhere in the current laws.

Lifting the player is not an infringement. Tipping them over so they face downward is not an infringement.

But if you’ve done both these things and the player lands with their head or upper body making first contact with the ground, then you’re in serious trouble.

The other way at looking at this is that if the tackler has placed the ball carrier into a dangerous position (i.e. they might drop on their head), the onus is on the tackler to bring the player safely to the ground.

So, is a dump tackle possible under these interpretations? Let’s take a look.

A Crazy Example Of Legs Above Horizontal In A Legal Tackle

Before you decide that it’s impossible to tilt the ball carrier above horizontal in a legal tackle, take a look at this crazy example. No foul, play on!

Yeah well, they’re French!

The point is that the tackler brought the player safely to the ground.

You may have noticed that the lifted player doesn’t have the ball. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what happened in this situation. I assume he got it away to his teammaate before being treated like a beloved rag doll.

And this was a friendly, which may have been why the referee didn’t pay much attention.

I’ll point out that if this happened in youth or amateur level, most referees would caution the tackler not to repeat these actions.

Can You Dump Tackle In Rugby? Yes!

Forget that crazy example from a pre-season friendly. Let’s take a look at a dump tackle in a top class professional club match.

Welsh international prop Gethin Jenkins is playing for his club, the Cardiff Blues. Although they’re at home in the Cardiff Arms park, they are taking on one of the top clubs in Europe.

Irish province Leinster play in blue at home, but here they’re in white. Jenkins lines up center Noel Reid with a glint in his eye.

The tackling sequence

I’ve slowed down the play twice so you can see what’s going on. Why is this tackle legal?

Let’s take a look at the sequence from the tackler’s point of view. The tackler:

  1. makes contact head on with the ball carrier (i.e. not from the side or behind)
  2. crouches and wraps arms around the legs of the ball carrier
  3. heaves and lifts the ball carrier upward and forward
  4. keeps his own legs bent and body low while driving forward (not upward)
  5. continues to hold the player who is near-horizontal when inches from the ground
  6. falls with the player who hits the turf on his side

I’ve bolded the parts that are noticeably different from the illegal sequence I described earlier.

Note that the ball carrier hits the deck on his side. He could have hit flat on his back, which would have been better for the defending team (your opponent is more likely to be winded). Either situation is a legal tackle.

What Other Tackles Are Illegal In Rugby?

Apart from dump tackles where ball carriers hit the ground head first, what other tackles are illegal in rugby?

You can ankle tap a player in rugby with your hand, but you can’t trip with your foot in rugby.

And check out our article on late tackles, early tackles and tackles without the ball!