Stealing the ball: Three ways to force the turnover

A turnover transforms defence into attack in a split second and opens up try-scoring opportunities. Here's how the top teams get their hands on the ball.

TOKYO, 21 Sep - Turnovers are a prized commodity in rugby as they can turn defence into attack in a split second and alter the whole course of a match.

In the moments following a turnover or possession, the attacking team has to reorganise its scattered defensive line. As they scramble back into position, gaps can open up across the field, creating try-scoring opportunities for the team which is now on the attack.

The best defensive teams are those who do not defend for very long but who turn the ball over and counter-attack instead.

There are several ways to force a turnover in rugby but the ones you'll see the most aggressive defences employ are stripping the ball in a tackle, jackaling for the ball on the ground and counter-rucking at the breakdown.

Stripping the ball

As long as the tackler releases the ball carrier when they hit the ground he can continue to try and steal the ball during the tackle process.

In the clip below, Juan Manuel Leguizamon of Argentina strips the ball by himself, but teams will typically put two or three defenders into the tackle: one tackler will focus on stopping the ball carrier while the others work on stealing the ball.

Wales - in black - showcase the gang tackle in this next clip. Dominiko Waqaniburotu of Fiji carries but Sam Warburton of Wales immediately gets onto the ball. Scott Baldwin and Taulupe Faletau join Warburton to keep the ball off the ground and delay the formation of a ruck to the point where Waqaniburotu is no longer able to distribute the ball to a teammate.

When an attacker is held in the maul and cannot advance forward, or is the ball is not immediately available when the attacker goes to ground, a scrum is awarded and the ball is turned over. 

The jackal

Defenders can also steal the ball on the ground. We call this the jackal. Defenders need to stay on their feet and cannot support their weight on an opposition player or go to ground, and must take their hands off the ball once a ruck is formed. In the clip below, notice how Jack Ram of Tonga does not make the tackle but as soon as Johan Deysel hits the floor, Ram attaches himself to the ball until referee Glen Jackson signals the penalty.

School of Rugby - Jackal


When teams counter-ruck they drive over, almost like a scrum, so the ball is on their side of the ruck rather than on that of the attacking side. Notice below how the Romanian captain Mihai Macovei leads the way before he is joined by Mihai Lazar and the rest of the Romanian forward pack.

Turnovers are a particularly potent weapon and not just because they create tries such as this one.

They also change the way attacking teams play. One way to stop a defence from counter-rucking or stealing the ball in a jackal is to put more bodies into the ruck. The problem with that is that it restricts your attacking options, and the threat of the strip tackle makes attackers hold onto the ball tightly and limits offloading opportunities.

Key points

  • Good defensive teams turn the ball over quickly rather than making lots of tackles.
  • When ball carriers are tackled and they don’t have support players to secure possession, expect to see defenders jackal for the ball on the ground.
  • If an attacker runs into more than one defender, look to see if the defenders hold him up and try and strip him of the ball.
  • If your team concedes lots of turnovers, look to see how both they and the opposition adapt. Do they stop being adventurous with their attack and reduce the risk of turning the ball over?

More Rugby Fundamentals

 RNS sl/rl