It was recently reported that World Rugby is considering trial laws which include banning the 'jackal.' In this interview, originally published October 2018, Neil Ronan outlined his own issues with that area of the game.
Former Wales captain Sam Warburton probably didn't expect the clamorous debate that followed his retirement.
The 29-year-old shocked the rugby community by announcing he was finished with the sport, confirming his body couldn't cope with the demands of the modern game. In doing so he issued one crucial suggestion: "You have to look at the clean-outs. You need to protect the jackalers."
Since this recommendation, Stuart Barnes penned a column arguing against Warburton's suggestion of a limit to a two-person ruck to which Warburton fired back that Barnes has missed the point.
This is not a new concern on this isle, it was a three-man clear out that ultimately ended Paul O'Connell's career back in 2015. In recent weeks, various Leinster players have voiced their opinions on the matter in the Irish press. As Sean O'Brien told the Irish Times, Warburton was right to raise this issue.
I always say at the breakdown some referees, they let you get... you could be in a poach position, and you’ll take one big hit or someone will smash you and you still survive it. And you take another one and you’ll survive it and there’s still no whistle gone. And it’s the third lad that does the damage to you. That’s where you’re getting so much punishment – three massive free shots and there’s still no penalty.
In terms of that, I don’t know what has to be done around that area. Definitely, there’s something about different styles of refereeing. Definitely, some referees get you in trouble. A lot. Especially when you’re in that poach, vulnerable position.
Punishment comes with the position for O'Brien and Warburton. The recent Irish Rugby Injury Surveillance Report into amateur rugby confirmed that the most injured position was openside flanker, at 11%.
Niall Ronan is someone who understands this career liability and the breakdown, and thus the former Munster man is perfectly placed to explain where the game needs to go to resolve its persistent issue.
Speaking to Balls.ie, Ronan argued the officiating of such a technical aspect needs to improve:
"The main problem is the inconsistency of refereeing. It comes down to the interpretation of the poach. You might get a two second poach and it’s a penalty, but a ref will let you get hit two or three times. Sometimes there's a late whistle or even no whistle and just play on."
During his career, Ronan was renowned for his breakdown expertise. Yet this was the not down to natural ability and instead the manifestation of meticulous practice. Under the guidance of Australian Laurie Fisher, Ronan’s technical prowess blossomed. The Australian catch arrived at the province in 2008 as forwards coach and immediately addressed the back-row's inadequacies.
Laurie Fisher when he first came over, I don’t think he rated me as a player. Part of the game I was weak in was the breakdown. He is the king of that area. I repped breakdowns, every type of clear-out, over and over. The role, hitting low, getting underneath a guy on a poach.
Fisher had three or four drills. First we were shadowing, then at an angle, footwork was also prioritised. We aimed for to get down low and under. Sometimes that isn’t possible obviously and then you need a role or at the hip. There are different types of technique. Fisher mainly, then Axel (Anthony Foley) on top of that, just drilled it.
The one I used to use was to hit the guy before the breakdown even happened, blasting out before it which is actually illegal now.
"He wanted me to know every type of technique, have them all at my arsenal. I repped for six months all the time until I was at a high level. I’ll never forget it. In his second year, at the end of the second season, I was selected to play for Ireland against the Baa-Baas against George Smith. He was a brilliant openside flanker at the end of his career. I beat him to the breakdown, and with my technique. It was purely down to Fisher."
Ronan's solution is a simple one. The referee's evaluation should be decisive. A clear-out must be safe and legal while the poacher must be on his feet and executed before a ruck has formed. After that, it should be down to wins 'the race.'
It should be a 50/50 contest. If you are in a good position straight away on the ball, you should have the advantage. A one second, two-second hold even with a hit. If you win the race to get there, that is where it should be rewarded. But sometimes if it is 50/50, it is a wrestle. One guy gets you half way and another finishes you off. So if the clear-out has you, they should be in charge.
It's about being more knowledgeable on it and speeding up decisions on the breakdown.
Discussions about rugby and the jackal will inevitably mention David Pocock. The Australian is a master of the trade who delights his Wallaby team-mates and infuriates the opposition. His prowess prompted former Irish international Neil Francis to label him a "cancer on the game" earlier this year.
However, Ronan was quick to praise an often overlooked aspect of Pocock's poaching ability, his decision-making.
"I can remember going in and if you were getting hammered but you would try to be clever. The best players are, if it is a no-win situation they pull out and get into the defensive line. David Pocock is a genius at it, he gets praised for his poach but on the other side when it doesn’t work he pulls out and gets into the line, he’s so efficient."
Pocock pulling out of poach, getting into defensive line and making a tackle.
Despite his obvious occupational bias, Ronan is adamant the advantage should not be stacked in favour of the poacher. He cites Tadhg Furlong's iconic clear-out of Pocock during Ireland's test victory over Australia last summer as an example of how the process can play out effectively and perfectly.
"That was perfect. Clean. It was one in, a straight blast. As a player, you just take that loss and play on."