One of the intriguing things that you often come across is the syndrome where commentators on TV use phrases to explain referee decisions which are not actually in the laws. I’m not saying the commentator is wrong, just that they invent phrases as a shorthand. This becomes more of a problem when players also start to use the phrase, and the link to the actual laws has been lost. A great example is “Playing the 9”. You will often hear this phrase when a scrum-half is tackled before or as she is reaching into a ruck to get the ball. But if you look at the laws you will see nothing specific about this infraction. As is often the case, it is actually a combination of laws which make it illegal to tackle the scrum-half at a ruck when she doesn’t have possession of the ball.
Law – Ruck
The first thing to remember is that there is an offside line at the ruck (Law 15.4). The defending player cannot go past this line even if they enter the ruck legally by entering “alongside but not in front of the hindmost player” (Law 15.6), unless they bind on to a player in the ruck. The scrum-half is not in the ruck, so she is not a player that a defender can bind on to.
So, if the scrum-half is stood at the back of the ruck it is impossible to tackle her without either failing to bind to a player in the ruck, or going around the ruck in which case the defender is offside.
Law – Foul Play
In addition Law 9.14 says “A player must not tackle an opponent who is not in possession of the ball”. The scrum-half does not have the ball and so cannot be tackled. This applies even if a defending player is bound into the ruck with one arm and reaches out with the other. That player is positioned legally in the ruck -the one-arm bind is legal – but the scrum-half does not have the ball. So leave her alone!
Law 9.15 also helps here, but is slightly trickier. It states “Except in a scrum, ruck or maul, a player who is not in possession of the ball must not hold, push, charge or obstruct an opponent not in possession of the ball”. So, not only can you not tackle the scrum-half, but you can’t hold, push, charge or obstruct her. The slight confusion here is with “Except in a [..] ruck” – don’t forget the scrum-half is not in the ruck. So leave her alone!
Now it gets interesting
There is a circumstance however when the scrum-half can be tackled. This sometimes confuses players and spectators. Once the scrum-half has her hands on the ball she is technically in possession. So now it is within the laws to grab her as long as the defender is in an on-side position (either behind the back foot of the rearmost player, or bound into the ruck). No referee in their right mind would allow this to happen – continuity of the game would crash and burn, and continuity is one of the things we are looking for.
Instead referees will typically tell the players at the start of the game that until a scrum-half has possession of the ball and has lifted it out of the scrum she is protected by the laws above. Once she has lifted it out however, she is in possession, the ruck has ended, there are no offside lines for the defenders and she can be fairly tackled. Note that she cannot be tackled by a player who was in an offside position at the ruck since that player remains offside even when the ruck is complete (Law 10.8) and should have been trying to get themselves onside without undue delay (Law 10.10).
Note that when the ball leaves the ruck, and the scrum-half has not picked it up, she still cannot be tackled, because she still hasn’t got the ball. The ruck is over now however, so only law 9.14 applies at this point.
At the end of all that it’s easy to be sympathetic to a commentator that explains this whole complex situation with “The penalty was for playing the 9”. Fair enough.