Two referees for rugby games in future, the expansion of the "mark" law and a rejig of the Currie Cup set the tone for rugby in the year ahead.
A week of highs and lows greeted the new South African rugby season. On Saturday in London the Sharks began preparations for Super Rugby with a 23-15 loss to Saracens, while on Sunday in Las Vegas the Blitzbokke won their second successive International Rugby Board tournament.
The domestic season began in the unlikely location of Alice on Monday, and a day later the first serious politicking of the new year caused the postponement of the South African Rugby Union’s special general council meeting.
It has become a tradition to begin a new season with new laws, and this one is no exception. The Varsity Cup and the Varsity Shield have been in the vanguard of innovation and there is much excitement over two things in particular: two referees in one game and the expansion of the "mark" law.
The former is not really new. Danie Craven experimented with it in the 1960s and it has been tried in various countries over the intervening years, with mixed results. The principal problem in an era of public humiliation for officials is quite where the sport will unearth enough referees to make it work. Ultimately, for the professional game it is another addition to the bottom line on the balance sheet and, for that reason alone, it may be doomed from the outset.
The experimentation with the mark law is another matter entirely, however.
Ever since William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball and ran with it, the custodians of the game have been looking for a way to limit kicking. In the past decade, games of aerial ping pong have been commonplace and the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks refined it to a high art.
The tactic was to hoist the ball high into the air and put pressure on the receiver, forcing turnovers and building unstoppable momentum. But what one team could achieve with Fourie du Preez directing the kicks and Bryan Habana chasing them was not replicated elsewhere and quickly the tactic reduced games to aimless kicking, frequently suggesting that possession, far from being nine-tenths of the law, was actually a hindrance.
The new experiment allows a "mark" to be made anywhere on the field of play, not just in the 22 – in effect stopping the harassment of the receiver, provided he makes a clean catch. In addition, referees will play advantage from the moment of the catch, bringing play back to where the kick was made for a free kick if they consider that advantage has not been gained.
The obvious conclusion to be made is that teams will think twice before kicking the ball in broken play. But it is always the case that a better mousetrap produces a cleverer mouse. It should be remembered that, while varsity rugby has been a hothouse for innovation, the wider game has rejected many of its ideas.
The new scrum engagement law was trialled in varsity rugby and is still being refined. The anomalies in it were evident in the Sharks-Saracens game, in which collapsed scrums were the order of the day and a bemused referee started giving penalties by numbers; one for you, one for them. It did not help that the game was played on the artificial surface of Allianz Park. Props are used to a lot more "give" in the ground than Astroturf is able to provide.
Sharks coach Jake White was happy with the runout, however, and had a chance to look at some youngsters in testing conditions. Tyler Fisher at fullback looks like one for the future and 19-year-old Andre Esterhuizen was a remarkable physical presence at inside centre. Tim Swiel was less convincing at flyhalf, however, and the former Western Province pivot has some hard work ahead of him.
White has already stated that his dream team will feature Pat Lambie at flyhalf and Frans Steyn at inside centre, but the Super Rugby season is still a month away. Steyn returned from injury in the final stages of the Currie Cup last year, having failed to impress in Super Rugby. But White is a fierce loyalist with players who have performed for him before and since Steyn was a key member of the 2007 side, he may be in the right place at the right time.
Currie Cup format
The format for the Currie Cup was due to be debated yet again this week, but Saru sent out a notice on Tuesday that revealed more by what it omitted than by what it said. "[S]oundings taken by the executive council in advance of the meeting clearly indicated that the latest proposal was unlikely to reach the required two-thirds majority," said the release.
The proposal is to expand from six teams to eight, thereby including Griquas (relegated last year) and the Eastern Province Kings. The release went on to say: "The games and policies committee has been asked to reconsider the proposal for resubmission to the council next month."
It is more than a little intriguing that a meeting should be postponed based on "soundings". More so when it appears that Saru wants to know the outcome of the vote in advance. Curiouser and curiouser.