What is a Jackal in Rugby? Is it even legal?
For those new to the sport, the jackal is an action enabling a player to steal the ball from an opponent just after a tackle and before a ruck is formed. The ‘Jackler’, the player attempting to reclaim the ball before the ruck forms aims to get as low as possible whilst still remaining on their feet and being in control of their own bodyweight. Take a look at one of the finest jackler’s of the game, Irishman Tadhg Beirne, winning a vital jackal turnover against New Zealand in 2022.
Tadhg Beirne Jackal Genius
I’ve slowed the gif down to focus on the movements of Beirne, in the blue scrumcap, you’ll see as Conor Murray tackles the New Zealand player Tadhg Beirne sees an opportunity. As the New Zealand player falls to the floor Beirne positions himself behind the player with a wide stance and immediately gets his hands on the ball and lifts the ball, and the man, from the ground. Given the split second nature of his intervention, the position on the field, 72 minutes into the game, he truly is a master of his craft and this a thing of beauty.
The role of the jackal in the game
Like most professional sports, rugby is saturated with analysis, gameplans & porganised defences. From an attacking perspective, the Jackal allows players to create turnover ball, so ball with a less organised defence that you can attack. From a defensive perspective, a ‘Jackal’ turnover is one of the most effective ways of regaining possession & preventing pick and go tries, a go to option once any team reaches close to their opponents tryline. Once the Jackler has ‘locked on’ to the ball it becomes very difficult for the opposing team to ‘clear out’ the man, often leading to ‘neck roll’ penalties.
Legalities and rules surrounding the jackal
The legality of the jackal has been a topic of debate in rugby. The laws of the game provide certain guidelines for players engaging in this skill. One key aspect is the requirement for the jackaler to stay on their feet while contesting the ball. Any contact with the ground, even momentarily, can result in penalties for the player and their team. A second is the concept of a ‘clear release’, meaning any defender involved in the tackle must clearly release the attacking player prior to attempting to ‘jackal’ the ball.
To go back and look at the earlier example, in the below image you can see Tadhg Beirne makes contact with the attacking player
Here you can see Conor Murray (number 21) is the dominant force in the tackle, but it would also be fair to say that Beirne (blue scrumcap) is ‘part of the tackle’.
In the above photo we can see less than a second later Beirne has moved into the jackal position to attempt to take possession of the ball a second Irish player is also looking to challenge for the ball and a New Zealand player is also moving in to protect the ball. So, what is wrong with this picture?
A ruck is formed when at least one player from each team are in contact, on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground.World Rugby Law 15.2
So in this example we see two players from either team in contact with the ball on the floor therfore the ruck has formed. However;
Once a ruck has formed, no player may handle the ball unless they were able to get their hands on the ball before the ruck formed and stay on their feet.World Rugby Law 15.11
So in this specific instance whilst one can argue the ruck has formed, referee Wayne Barnes (who could not be better positioned) has seen Beirne get his hands on the ball prior to the ruck being formed, leading to the eventual turnover.
The nature of rugby being such a dynamic and combatative sport means that when any decision is placed under the microscope there can and will be multiple opinions on each decision. Whilst that may be confusing initially to newcomers to the game, as you become more familiar with the game ypou will begin to delight in the fact that these are open to interpretation and delight that rugby has laws, not rules.
Famous jackalers in rugby history
Throughout rugby history, there have been several standout players renowned for their jackaling abilities. Richie McCaw, the former New Zealand captain was relentless pursuit of turnovers and his ability to win crucial penalties made him a formidable presence at the breakdown.
Another notable jackaler is Michael Hooper, the Australian flanker. Hooper’s exceptional technique despite his smaller stature made him a nightmare for opposing teams.
Brian O’Driscoll is renowned (amongst other things) for redefining the centres role by becoming an accomplished Jackler and regularly ‘punching above his weight’ to thwart opposition attacks.