Beware pickpockets as new rule enjoys scrappy start - Gareth Ellis column

WE have seen a lot of ball-stealing plays in the opening two rounds of Betfred Super League following a rule change for 2021 but I’m still not sure what the point of this alteration actually is.

In for a steal?: Huddersfield Giants' Sam Wood is tackled by Catalans  during the Betfred Super League match at the Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens. Picture: Richard Sellers/PA
In for a steal?: Huddersfield Giants' Sam Wood is tackled by Catalans during the Betfred Super League match at the Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens. Picture: Richard Sellers/PA

Prior to this campaign, if two or more defenders were in contact with the player with the ball, at no point could they strip it one-on-one, even if only one of those defenders was still attached after the initial contact.

Now, though, you can steal the ball as long as there’s only one person in contact with the ball-carrier at that point; previous defenders can drop off.

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It’s something that’s been in the NRL and we’re obviously following suit but I don’t actually know what it adds to the game.

A lot of rule changes have occurred over the years and affected how the game is played; how you can manipulate it and how you want the game to be played, whether that’s speeding it up, slowing it down or whatever.

But, with this particular one, I’m not actually sure what they are trying to achieve.

From a coaching point of view, it’s something we’ve obviously looked at at Hull FC.

We’ve recognised it and now put a call on it when our players want to try and enact it.

If they ever feel they’re in a position where they have a good grip on the ball we have a call that signals to anyone else attached to that tackle to let go.

I don’t think it will happen very often but we’ve certainly seen a few attempts in these opening two rounds – and it has looked messy.

I’m not sure if it’s the initial teething issues with it – maybe the coaching around it with people not quite cottoning on yet – that is making it look so scrappy but I understand where Barrie McDermott is coming from.

I heard him on the TV the other night saying how he finds it has made the game scrappy and I get that.

It will be interesting to see how the tactic develops as the season goes on.

When it came in in Australia last year, Canberra Raiders were experts at it, particularly Josh Hodgson; he was the man.

The England hooker truly proved a master at it.

He’d get that grip on the ball and manage it time and time again.

Do not forget, as an attacker, when you have three blokes tackling you, there’s a lot of other things you are thinking about as well as obviously keeping hold of the ball.

As soon as defenders all ping off and the next minute someone is trying to rip out possession, it can be very effective for the defensive side.

It can turn games and it’s almost like a repeat set; when you don’t think you have the ball and then all of a sudden you do and the other team is defending again.

How will it pan out here this year?

Maybe teams will perfect it a little more – and maybe some won’t.

But maybe none of this should be a surprise as ball stealing has always been a scrappy part of the game.

Going back down the years, though, I remember coming up against players who have mastered the art of the one-on-one steal.

Gavin Clinch, the Australian scrum-half at Halifax, for instance, used to pick your pockets.

The March twins – Paul and David – were great at it as well as Dennis Moran, another Aussie half-back.

It is often smaller players or normally the ones who don’t want to make tackles: they’ll just try and steal the ball!

But it’s a gamble. We’ve said to our players that if they are confident they can rip it out, we have that call to alert them all.

But they have to be confident they will get it as, if they don’t, it can cause problems.

We do a lot of work to make sure we get numbers in tackles to dominate the ruck.

If three, four, five times a game you shout for other players to get off and you don’t get it, all of a sudden you lose the tackle and those three players are not set at marker which can be as detrimental as anything.

Players will have to be real smart about it and it has to be a clear, clean rip, too; you can’t rake it out and knock on in the process.

Doing it on your own tryline is not ideal – and some tacklers might be tired and be more than happy to hang on in a tackle!

There’s a lot that can go wrong and that is why it probably looks so messy at the moment.

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