On Monday, World Rugby, the body formerly known as the International Rugby Board, announced that it would institute a review of rugby’s existing laws. It has become traditional to do this at the end of a World Cup year, giving the revisions four years to settle in between tournaments.
A wide-ranging panel of experts will wrestle with the law book over the next six months and changes can be expected to be made as early as the beginning of the southern hemisphere season in 2016.
No other sport changes its laws with the regularity of rugby union. It is both a blessing and a curse. It means that the game can react to current undesirable trends, but players, referees and coaches constantly need to readjust.
Meanwhile, the law of unintended consequences is always there to stymie matters.
As an example of that, consider what has happened to the scrum in the past 10 years. Every change to the set piece that has long been regarded as the union code’s heartbeat has been aimed at safety. The need to eliminate catastrophic neck and spinal injuries was at the core of the amendments.
Referee in control
The “hit”, that moment when the front rows come together with seismic force, had to be eradicated. The unintended consequence of tampering with the hit was that the players were no longer in control of the engagement; the referee was.
The scrum and line-out were originally intended as ways to restart the game when the ball had become unplayable. They provided a brief hiatus before battle could recommence. But the interminable delays in the modern set piece stem from the list of issues the referee has to check before the ball can become playable again.
Inevitably the better mousetrap produces a cleverer mouse, and some coaches have identified the scrum as an area where they can waste time towards the end of a game. Consequently, some have proposed stopping the clock at the scrum, but this would produce three-hour games and place even more unwanted emphasis on the restart.
If there is one thing that World Rugby ought to be eradicating, it is the sight of penalised players looking at the referee in utter bemusement.
A classic example of this came in the Stormers/Sharks game at Newlands last weekend. Odwa Ndungane’s attempt to dot down the ball for a 5m scrum went wrong and it squirted forward in the in-goal area to Cobus Reinach, who tried and failed to control it, but succeeded in ushering it over the dead ball line.
Referee Jaco Peyper’s subsequent decision to award the Stormers a penalty try was the catalyst for Reinach’s bemusement, together with many in the crowd, including a large proportion of Stormers’s fans.
There is a general misconception that you cannot be offside in the in-goal area. Yet law 11.1(a) is very specific: “A player can be offside in the in-goal.” Reinach played the ball while in front of Ndungane and prevented a try being scored; hence Peyper was absolutely correct in his ruling.
Right decision feels wrong
The problem is that Peyper’s decision was right, but felt wrong and here is where the World Rugby think-tank has to come to the party.
It is time to look away from the scrum and address areas of obvious concern. Principal among these is the driving maul, still called the rolling maul by many. Typically, it begins at a line-out close to the try line when, after a clean catch, the forwards cluster around and transfer the ball to the hindmost player.
The game is supposed to be a contest for possession, but the defending side has its hands tied at the driving maul. It cannot come round the side of the maul and it cannot collapse it (penalties for both) and yet it cannot compete for the ball because there is a wedge of attacking players between it and the ball carrier.
In almost every other part of the game those players would be offside because they are in front of the man with the ball, but in the driving maul they are not.
Not surprisingly, many coaches use the driving maul as their main means of attack. The Springboks have scored dozens of tries with it over the past four years. But it is killing the game as a spectacle. Some might say that they can live without the spectacle if their team wins, but if that were the case then World Rugby wouldn’t bother changing the laws every four years.
One way to solve the issue would be to penalise moving forward at the maul. In other words, just as is the case at the scrum, the idea is to move the ball backwards in order to make it playable, not to steal ground by keeping it in a position where the opposition cannot play it.
It would have to be worded very carefully, of course, as we don’t want to outlaw the pushover scrum.
And while we’re on the subject of revision, why penalise a line-out throw for “not straight” if the opposition has chosen not to compete? As long as the hooker doesn’t throw the ball straight to the scrum half, who cares? Get on with the game.