You’ll hear lots of terms and phrases for tackling someone without the ball in rugby. The phrases describe slightly different situations, but they all boil down to the tackled player not being in possession of the ball.
Here are the scenarios we get into in detail in this article:
- Late tackles
- Early tackles
- Tackling the wrong player
- Tackling a player who is fumbling and juggling the ball
- Sneaky little nudges and shirt grabs
But first, let’s look at the actual laws of the sport. Sometimes they can be a bit vague, but not this time.
Is There A Law About Tackling Someone Without The Ball In Rugby?
The laws of rugby could not be clearer:
“A player must not tackle an opponent who is not in possession of the ball.”World Rugby Laws
This is one of the statements under Law 9 which covers Foul Play. Even more specifically, this particular rule is in the section of Dangerous Play.
In a late tackle, the player had possession of the ball as the defender approaches. But the player passes or kicks the ball, and therefore is no longer in possession.
If the defender makes the tackle at this point, then this is tackling someone without the ball.
It’s called a late tackle because if the defender had tackled a little earlier before the ball left the player’s hands, it would have been a well-timed tackle.
Referees do apply some leeway here.
If the tackler has launched their body forward when the player still has the ball, then we have to acknowledge the laws of physics and momentum. Defenders can’t stop themselves in mid-air.
If the referee judges that the defender could not “pull out of the tackle”, then it will not be ruled as an infringement.
Commentators may still call it a late tackle. Technically the ball has left the player’s hands a split second before the defender makes the hit.
There are plenty of players (usually forwards) who love nothing better than getting in a sneaky late hit.
The easiest target is when the ball is passed back from a ruck to the flyhalf whose next move is to kick for territory.
Flyhalves must catch the ball, steady themselves, reposition their hands, and drop the ball to their kicking foot. This takes a split second even for experienced tens.
The legitimate defensive play is to go for a charge down and try to block the kick.
The sneaky play is to fake the charge down and try to clatter into the kicker.
However, referees are on the watch for this. The usual outcome to a late hit in this situation is that the kicker now gets the advantage of a penalty kick.
The referee may also decide that the infringement is serious enough to warrant a card.
Early Tackles (Tackling A Player Without The Ball)
Let’s take a situation of a flowing move where the center passes the ball out to the winger.
The defender anticipates the pass and tackles the winger a split second before the ball arrives at the winger’s hands.
The likelihood is that the winger will fumble the ball. Great, right?
Wrong. This is an early tackle!
If the winger actually holds on to the ball, the referee probably won’t notice. And if it’s noticed, the referee will probably let play continue if the winger gets away from the defender.
However, if the winger is at a disadvantage, the referee will whistle for tackling a player without the ball.
It’s unlikely that a card will be awarded. This is unless the referee believes that the winger would score a try if there hadn’t been an infringement.
In this case, a penalty try is awarded and the infringer usually gets a yellow card.
Tackling The Wrong Player (Without The Ball)
This is probably the easiest for referees (and the crowd) to pick up.
A common tactic is for the attacking team to use dummy runners.
Players run forward as if they’re about to receive the pass but the ball goes past them to the next player. The goal is to make a defender focus on the wrong player.
It’s an even better outcome for the attacking team if the defender completely “buys the dummy” and actually tackles the player without the ball. That’s a stone-cold penalty kick.
Actually, it’s not so great for the poor dummy runner. If you’re not expecting a tackle, the hit can really hurt. Let me show you an example.
This is a club match between Ireland’s Munster and Welsh team Ospreys. You may not spot the tackle off the ball in the first few seconds of the clip. We replay it in slow-mo with some big arrows pointing at the problem.
Watch it and bear in mind that the referee had his hand up for a foul before the play stopped. That’s some eagle eyes, right there.
Tackling A Player Juggling The Ball
This interesting scenario occurred in 2011 in a club match between the Sharks and the Cheetahs in South Africa.
Springbok Ryan Kankowski was chasing a kick. The ball bounced up and he failed to catch it cleanly. Instead, his hand knocked the ball further forward in the air.
As he lunged to gather the ball, he was tackled to the ground before his hands touched it again. The referee awarded a scrum to the Cheetahs for a knock-on.
Kankowski protested to the referee that he was tackled without the ball.
The referee explained that tackles must be allowed in this situation. Otherwise, every player could juggle the ball down the field and across the try line.
His reasoning was that it would make a farce of the sport.
When Does A Nudge Become A Tackle Without The Ball In Rugby?
Take a scenario when the ball is kicked forward and two opposing players are chasing side-by-side to run it down. When does a sneaky little nudge become a tackle off the ball?
We’ve got a separate article on running interference or blocking in rugby, with a clip of a clear example.
But maybe a nudge is too obvious. Perhaps a sneaky little shirt grab would be better.
Wonder what happens when a legendary Wallaby back row is in a foot race with a legendary All Blacks winger? Check out our article on grabbing shirts in rugby to see what happens.
More About Tackling
If you want more examples of good and back tackles, check out our article on illegal and legal tackling in rugby.
You also may be surprised to learn that there are many different types of tackles in rugby. The linked article explores over ten variations.