What Is A Maul In Rugby? (Explained For Beginners)

Do you know the difference between a maul, a rolling maul, and a ruck in rugby?

This article uses video and pictures to explain all aspects of mauls. Plenty of rugby fans don’t like mauls and there are occasional calls from commentators to remove them from the game.

But we may convince you to love them when you understand them!

What Is A Maul?

A maul may occur when the ball carrier is tackled but is not brought to the ground.

When only the ball-carrier and the defender are pushing against each other, a maul is not formed as it requires at least three players.

When a third player joins by binding to a teammate, this is now a maul.

This picture shows a maul with five players. Two are bound to each other on the left and three opponents are bound on the right.

What does binding mean in a maul?

Binding simply means wrapping an arm tightly around the torso of a teammate next to you.

Players aren’t allowed to join a maul by reaching out an arm and simply touching their teammate. That would hardly do much good in pushing anyway!

What Is The Difference Between A Ruck And A Maul?

A maul only occurs when the ball is kept off the ground.

If the ball carrier goes to ground, then the maul is over. As long as the opposition didn’t infringe to bring the maul down illegally, the maul has not become a ruck.

A ruck is only formed when the ball is on the ground.

Here’s a picture of a typical ruck. The jackler is competing for the ball.

What Are The Rules About Joining A Maul?

There are strict rules around how players approach and join a maul.

It’s not a free-for-all! Players can’t just fly in from every direction to attach themselves to a teammate.

Players can only join mauls from an onside position. This position is behind the hindmost foot of the player who is at the back of the maul.

Let’s take a look with a picture.

We’ve marked the onside line from the hindmost foot of the players on the right.

We’ve also marked the offside line. A player can’t join from the side of the maul.

This is the actual law:

Players joining a maul must:

Do so from an onside position.

Bind on to the hindmost player in the maul.

World Rugby Laws

“In from the side”

This is an offense. You may hear the referee shouting “in from the side” as a warning.

Referees tend to give the erring players a chance to remove themselves from an offside position.

However, if they persist in pushing having joined from the side, the referee will blow for a penalty.

Why does the attacking team get away with being offside?

You may have noticed that the defending team usually gets penalized when a player is desperately trying to defend a rolling maul (we’ll come to that later) and runs in from the side.

But does it seem to you that the attacking team sends players running in at all angles? Your eyes are not deceiving you.

There is no doubt that officials are far more lenient to the attacking team when it comes to the offside line and joining from the side.

This is a real bug-bear for many commentators. Now and then, World Rugby does a fresh clampdown on laws that are consistently broken. We may see that happen with mauls.

Mauls Must Move Forward

Rugby would be very boring if we watched a maul in a static stalemate, with neither side able to budge their opponents.

But mauls aren’t allowed to be static. Nor can it veer horizontally from one side of the field to the other.

The team in possession of the ball must move the maul forward toward the opposition try line.

This doesn’t need to be a straight line. The maul can zig and zag, as long as it moves closer to the try line.

What If A Maul Stops Moving?

The opposition will try to stop the ball-carrier’s maul moving forward.

If the maul stops for five seconds, the ball must be moved away from the maul. The referee will shout “use it” to signal that this time limit is up.

Usually, you’ll see the scrumhalf take the ball from the ball carrier at the back of the maul.

Now the ball is in open play. The defending players can move to tackle the scrumhalf or any player he passes the ball to.

What If The Team Can’t Get The Ball Away?

You’ll sometimes see the ball carrier fall to the ground with his teammates on top of him.

If the opposition illegally brought the maul down to the ground, then this is a penalty to the team in possession.

However, it can also result from good defence by the opposition or poor technique by the team that set up the maul.

“Ball is unplayable!”

referee saying unplayable

If the ball can’t be retrieved from under a pile of bodies, this means that the ball is “unplayable”. The referee will shout that this is the case.

This is a big problem for the team that set up the maul!

Possession is handed over to the opposition who are awarded a scrum. This is one of several situations that leads to a scrum in rugby.

What Is A Rolling Maul?

A rolling maul is a maul that continuously moves toward the opposition try line. As long as it keeps moving, the team in possession can keep the ball at the back of the maul.

The defenders cannot legally attack the ball as they would be offside. The only legal option for defenders is to push back to stop the maul for at least five seconds.

If the defending team can stop the maul, the referee will tell the team in possession that the maul is over and to move the ball away.

Examples Of Rolling Mauls

The 2015 Rugby World Cup pool match between host country Japan and the Springboks saw a battle of rolling mauls between the two teams.

The first clip is a classic forward rolling maul.

The second clip sees backs run into join the forwards and add their weight to get over the line.

The third clip shows how defenders can be bamboozled when the maul changes direction.

Just for variety, we then show a few displays of running rugby.

But then we go back to a rolling maul. That one didn’t end up with a try. The defending team successfully got their bodies under the ball to stop it from hitting the ground.

Why are rolling mauls so effective?

The attacking team controls the direction that they push with maximum force.

They can switch this from point to point when players legally switch positions or new players join the maul.

It can be difficult for the defending team to identify where the ball is and where the maul will move next.

Rolling mauls from a lineout

Setting up a rolling maul from a lineout is a very common move when the team in possession is inside the opposition half.

As you can see from our video, when the lineout is on the five-meter line or within the twenty-two, the rolling maul is a great source for tries.

What Does “Pulling Down A Maul” Mean?

You may hear the referee give a penalty and say that the defending team pulled down the maul. What does that mean?

We showed some clips earlier of devastating mauls that roll forward toward the defending team’s try line.

The defenders must try their best to stop this momentum. Those attempts may be illegal.

One common infringement is when a defender simply drags the entire maul to the ground.

A more subtle way to get the same effect is when a defender sinks to the ground and the opponents fall over him.

Both these actions result in pulling down a maul illegally. The ball-carrying team is awarded a penalty.

Pulling down a maul can be accidental

The ball carrier’s teammates can sometimes lose their footing and fall to the ground, bringing down the maul.

This is known as accidentally bringing down the maul. The maul has collapsed without an infringement. In this case, a scrum is awarded to the opposing team.

More rarely, the referee may decide that a defending player accidentally collapsed the maul.

As defenders can be quite devious about this (“sorry, sir, I tripped, honest”), referees don’t often give them the benefit of the doubt.

Why Is Blocking Allowed In Mauls?

Our article on blocking in rugby explains why it is usually illegal.

Attackers usually can’t get in the way of defenders trying to compete for possession of the ball.

But look at all those attacking players between the defence and the ball-carrier at the back of the maul in the picture below!

Why isn’t this blocking? Well, blocking is legal in the context of a legal maul.

If the attacking players at the front of the maul detached themselves (let go of their bind to their teammate) and got in the way of defenders, then they would be bocking illegally.

Why Is Pushing Allowed In Mauls?

Unlike American football, you can usually only push or make contact with the ball carrier in rugby.

Otherwise, you can’t push players who don’t have the ball. To do so is a penalty offence.

Mauls are different. As long as players have joined a maul legally, they can push opponents who don’t have the ball.

Indeed, players push as hard as they can to try to achieve dominance.

Similar exceptions apply to rucks and scrums.

Rolling Mauls Versus Flying Wedges

Our article on flying wedges in rugby explains why they are strictly illegal. They are considered to be dangerous to player welfare due to the high risk of injury.

The flying wedge was outlawed in American Football due to a high number of deaths!

Here’s a picture of Argentina about to form a flying wedge in a test rugby match back in 1985. The players have already bound together, and they are running to accept the ball from a tapped free kick.

They will then barge into the opposition and charge forward as a rolling maul.

So, why is this illegal?

As you can imagine, the running start in the flying wedge gives the team more momentum and force. That is why it’s illegal.

The rugby law books explicitly state that these types of charges are illegal.

Teams must not use the ‘cavalry charge’ or ‘flying wedge’.

World Rugby Laws

Rolling mauls are legal because the ball carrier’s side doesn’t have momentum before they start rolling forward.