Calls for ban on ‘crocodile rolls’ after Jack Willis suffers extensive knee damage

Former England and Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan has led a long-term campaign to stamp out crocodile rolls, which have contributed to the shortening of several careers including former South Africa captain Jean de Villiers.

“It’s been the same thing I’ve been saying for last seven years,” Ryan said. “Players are being allowed to judo/croc/saddle roll – it’s called different things but it’s all the same and it contravenes two laws: 1/ Deliberately collapsing a ruck. 2/ Deliberately coming off your feet at a ruck.

“You can’t croc roll someone without breaking both those laws. Yet they are being ignored because [World Rugby] have deemed they are legal. Those laws then either get taken out of the law book or get followed. You would only take a law out if it improves player safety and it makes the game better. It does neither.”

In 2016, World Rugby published tougher sanctions for head and neck contact, including outlawing neck rolls at the breakdown. The red cards issues to Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Scotland’s Zander Fagerson for illegal clear-outs at the breakdown during this year’s Six Nations demonstrate how seriously referees are monitoring head contact.

While crocodile rolls avoid contact with the head, they can wreck knees, particularly when the studs are planted in the turf while the body is twisted the other way. However, a World Rugby spokesperson claimed the issue of crocodile rolls has never been raised with them by a union.

After Wasps’ 17-13 Premiership victory against Worcester Warriors in which Willis’ brother, Tom, was man of the match, Blackett said:  “It’s really early and I don’t want to go concrete with this but it sounds like he has done quite a few things with his knee.

“It’s pretty serious. But at this moment in time it looks like he has not done his ACL. He will spend a long time out, I should imagine. It’s hard to get how he is in terms of a text message. I know Jack, I know how distraught he will be. This happens to professional rugby players. We will be there to support him in any way we possibly can.”

Expert’s view

JP Doyle: Would banning the ‘croc roll’ protect players like Jack Willis? I don’t know the answer

In one game against London Irish a while back, I gave Jack Willis seven holding-on penalties. He was just brilliant. I would say he and Tom Rees are the best players I have ever refereed. What happened to him on Saturday was just horrible luck.

‘Croc roll’ and ‘tin opener’ are terms coined by coaches. They can sound bad. But the reason they have become accepted is because the breakdown is a numbers game. You need to understand the whole story and the evolution of it.

If you have a tackler and a ball-carrier and the tackler rolls away, the attack gives up one player. With a scrum-half to move the ball away, that becomes two players.

With two more to clear the ruck, the attack has given up four players. If the tackler has re-joined the line, as they often do, that can be a four-zero swing to the defence. England used to time defenders doing that, and Chris Robshaw would always be at the top.

Even if the defending team has two players covering the back-field, it is 13 on 11 in their favour in total. The crocodile roll came in because there were fewer people in breakdowns.

Defences could afford to commit an extra player – a jackaller – and attacks wanted to remove them without using up too many players.

Previously, it was bend, bind, blast. Jim Telfer spoke about getting low and under the net. As fewer and fewer attackers joined rucks, wrestling and judo techniques took over.

Coaches attempted to force jackallers to let go of the ball by putting their necks under stress. It was the old-school mauling idea – bend their fingers back – with a mixed martial arts twist. We came down hard on that, so there was a shift towards rolling from the body.

As an attacker, you couldn’t move the jackaller towards your own goal-line, because you would get sent off if they landed on their head.

You can’t tip them, either. Because you can’t make contact with their head, the only place left to move them is to the left and right. And jackallers would prefer that to going backwards and compressing their spines.

Of course, if these twists go wrong, there are big injuries like knee and ankle ligament tears. Paul O’Connell ripped his hamstring off the bone against France at Rugby World Cup 2015 while jackalling, hyperextending his leg as two opponents cleared him. Then players got more flexible.

Jack is a perfect example of that. He does so much stretching and is so supple that players can only remove him from the ball by twisting him to the ground. When a leg gets stuck, as it did on Saturday, you have problems.

You would not have crocodile rolls if attacking sides committed more players to rucks. Take the Matt Dawson show-and-go before Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal in 2003. Three players just blasted over and Neil Back moved it away.

Later on, modern coaches like Joe Schmidt were adamant that their teams should not commit any more players to attacking rucks than was absolutely necessary.

These days, the best jackallers do not often make tackles and then get up to contest as George Smith used to do. They wait for half-breaks. Think of Hamish Watson at the end of Scotland’s win at Twickenham.

If you ban the crocodile roll, attackers would adopt that low position and blast over. If you ban the jackal, you are looking at continuous possession – teams keeping the ball for 80 phases.

Either way, how would a defence get the ball back? Ripping it away in tackles? Defences would definitely not commit anyone to rucks, so you would have 14 or 15 on their feet most of the game. I am not sure anyone wants that.


So what is ‘jackalling’? 

Jackalling is the practice of a defender stooping over the ball-carrier to play the ball as the first arriving player to a tackle in a bid to win a penalty for holding on or to pilfer possession outright.

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