The current laws of rugby say that you can’t tackle a player whose feet are off the ground. It seems obvious this means that you can’t tackle someone in the air in rugby.
But wait. The pedants point out that players simply running with the ball will have their feet slightly in the air with every stride. Strictly applying the law would penalize most tackles, which would be absurd.
What about a bad pass that makes the receiver jump a few inches to catch it? And what if a winger is diving across the line to score a try?
This article shows when you can and can’t tackle someone in the air. You may be surprised by some referee decisions when you watch our examples.
Clear Cut Cases Where You Can’t Tackle Someone In The Air In Rugby
We opened the article with some special cases, but let’s look at the main reason why we have a law to protect players in the air.
Here’s a quick video where a red card was issued in two different matches in two different club competitions. I could have picked a hundred more examples.
My point is that the laws around tackling in the air are primarily aimed to protect players jumping for the ball. It’s one of the most vulnerable positions in rugby and has been a frequent cause of injuries in the past.
There has been a major push by World Rugby to reduce dangerous play and injuries in these situations. Referees are very strict in penalizing tackles on players jumping to catch a kick.
The penalty is usually accompanied by a card, although it may not always be red.
Can You Tackle A Player Jumping To Collect A Pass?
There’s nothing that makes a back row’s eyes light up more than a long loopy pass taking an age to reach the unfortunate opposition fly half. You can nearly see a bubble over the forward’s head: “line him up and smash him!”
This is usually called a hospital pass. It still takes skill for the defender to time the hit so it’s not too early. The opponent has to have the ball for a legitimate tackle. See our article on tackling without the ball.
Occasionally, the pass is even worse: it’s so high that the receiver has to jump to catch it.
Before 2017, many rugby enthusiasts would figure that the receiving player is fair game to be tackled as soon as the ball is in his hands.
But the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand changed all that with one of the most controversial refereeing decisions that year. Let’s take a look.
Video evidence and verdict
Irish scrum half Connor Murray passes the ball to onrushing English prop Kyle Sinckler.
The burly Lion turns his body sideways and jumps a few inches off the ground to take the pass.
The French referee blows his whistle for a penalty. There’s no question of a card, and the referee is almost apologetic as he motions with his hands to show that the ball carrier was in the air when he was tackled.
This is what Guazere had to say to the All Blacks captain and his bemused prop.
The reason why I don’t give a yellow card is that zee player jumped. But you can’t tackle zee player in zee air.(read with a French accent)
Just to point out – this was an incredibly important decision as it was late on in the match and the scores were level at 21 points apiece. The Lions kicked the penalty and won the game.
The decision was widely discussed and debated amongst rugby fans. It’s fair to say that the referee applied the letter of the law.
But I’d also point out that this wasn’t a pass way above the player’s head. Sinckler didn’t have to jump to take it. He chose to jump. I usually support the Lions, but this decision still seems very harsh to me.
Can You Tackle A Player Who Is Diving To Score A Try?
Here’s the scenario.
The ball carrier is speeding toward the try line while a defender is desperately racing across to tackle him out of play. The ball carrier leaps forward to dive for the try line.
You may be wondering if the attacker is in the wrong, but usually the ball carrier won’t be penalized in this case. Check out our article on when you’re allowed to jump over a tackle in rugby.
But here, we’re interested in whether the defender can tackle the player while he is in mid-dive, so to speak. Is this not tackling a player whose feet are off the ground?
Let’s take a look at one of the most famous examples, also known as one of the greatest try-saving tackles of all time!
The Wallabies were leading the All Blacks in a tight game in 1994. The Bledisloe Cup was on the line.
The two key players in this sequence would go on to be all-time greats in the game. But All Blacks winger Jeff Wilson was playing his third test match, and Australian scrum half George Gregan was winning his fourth cap. Both mere youngsters!
Wilson takes a pass and beats three defenders on his way to score what would be a winning try. Gregan is haring across from the side. Wilson dives across the try line. While he’s still in the air, Gregan makes his tackle. The pressure forces Wilson to drop the ball.
No try. And no penalty either.
Now, think back on the clip we showed of the All Blacks playing the Lions. What decision would be given today?
I talked with a referee about this, and he gave me a considered verdict. He said he awards a penalty when the tackler doesn’t bring the ball carrier safely to the ground. In the case of Gregan on Wilson, the blonde All Black lands horizontally in a perfectly safe position.
Safe tackle, so no penalty. That makes sense to me.