What does the word "immediate" mean?
I have been pondering this question while watching a lot of rugby in recent weeks and I feel that it is timely to again comment on the way the tackle and post-tackle play is being refereed, at least by referees in the Mitre 10 Cup and Heartland matches.
Frankly, it makes me cringe to see the way players are allowed to get away with clearly illegal play at the tackle.
This phase of play is fast becoming a blight on the game, by the way it is being refereed at the top levels of rugby in New Zealand.
The rulings in the law book are clear but somehow many infringements are either being missed or simply ignored by referees.
The Steelform Wanganui Heartland team seem to be regularly on the wrong side of the penalty count in their games so what is it that they are doing wrong?
It is costing them games when the coaching staff have been working hard to eliminate this part of their play.
The definition of a tackle is pretty clear and simple – it occurs when a ball carrier is held and is brought to the ground by one or more opponents.
Being brought to the ground means that the ball carrier is lying, sitting or has at least one knee on the ground, or another player who is lying on the ground.
To be held means the ball carrier is actually held by an opponent when he is on the ground.
Once a referee sees that a tackle has been effected, he should follow a process to determine what the players in the tackle and arriving players do and judge whether or not it is legal.
Firstly, the player(s) that effected the tackle must immediately release the ball and the ball carrier, clearly and obviously releasing both the tackled player and the ball.
If one of the opposition players also goes to ground while holding the ball carrier, he must also immediately release and move away.
He can also get back to his feet and then attempt to play the ball, but only from directly behind the tackled player, as in facing his opponent's goal line.
This defender must also allow the tackled player to release the ball and allow him to move away from the ball.
In a 2018 law amendment, only the first arriving opponent may play the ball with his hands, provided he stays on his feet and supports his own bodyweight.
This could be the tackler who went to ground in the tackle, a player who made the tackle but stayed on his feet, or another nearby player.
Once someone from the tackled player's team arrives and comes in contact with this opponent trying to win the ball at the tackle, a ruck is deemed to be formed and no other players may go for the ball with their hands.
The second key element to the tackle is what the tackled player has to do.
This player is now on the ground and has to do one of several things to comply with the law.
He must immediately make the ball available so that play can continue by releasing his hold, or he and can pass, place or push the ball in any direction except forward.
The player must immediately get up or move away from the ball.
He must also ensure he doesn't lie on, over or near the ball to prevent opposing players from gaining possession of it. All seems simple enough.
A player is tackled so he has to release the ball and move away or get up without it. Then the contest for the ball can begin.
The first arriving opposing player may then try and pick the ball up while players from the ball carrier's team try and prevent this from happening.
All arriving players must come from the right direction and stay on their feet.
Once all these players are in contact over the ball on the ground we have a ruck and ruck law now applies.
Notice one word that keeps applying to all players at the tackle – immediately. What does immediate mean?
Referees often debate the meaning of this very word.
I well recall some of the more conservative senior referees of the past maintaining that immediate meant just that – straight away, without delay.
Peter Hankins maintained if the ball was a hand grenade then the tackled player would complete his obligations pretty damn quick.
What we often see however is the ball carrier holding onto the ball until his cavalry arrive and stand over him to protect the ball.
Then a hand mysteriously reaches out and places the ball at the back of these other players. No attempt to immediately release the ball and move away.
What we are also seeing regularly is the first arriving opposing player either putting his hands on the ground beyond the ball as he tries to support himself before lifting his hands off the ground and going for the ball.
Or, having got his hands on the ball, he rests his elbows on the ground while trying to wrestle the ball from the tackled player.
The moment his hands or arms go to ground this player is no longer supporting his weight, and should either release the ball or be penalised.
Also, what we often see is arriving players, particularly from the ball-carrying team, coming into the tackle area from the side in an effort to stop the opposition from gaining possession once it is released, in what is called "cleaning out".
These players often go beyond where the ball is and then go to ground, thereby effectively sealing the ball off from the prying hands of the opposition.
If everyone involved in the tackle and post-tackle play carried out their obligations "immediately", the game might flow more freely and less penalties would have to be awarded.