Rugby rule book kicks refs in teeth

Matchwinner: Captain Richie McCaw scored the try that won last week's Test match for the All Blacks, but should the referee have awarded it? (Ashley Vlotman/Gallo)

Matchwinner: Captain Richie McCaw scored the try that won last week's Test match for the All Blacks, but should the referee have awarded it? (Ashley Vlotman/Gallo)

Part of the charm of rugby union is its laws. With the notable exception of cricket, most other sports have rules and, as is well known, rules were made to be broken. Breaking the law is an entirely more serious matter – although, as is also well known, laws are open to interpretation, which is why lawyers make such a good living.

Hardly any season is allowed to go by without amendments, however minor, to the laws of rugby union in an endless quest to make the game easier to play and to close loopholes in previous drafts.
After this year’s World Cup a whole raft of changes will be promulgated, with the aim of implementing them at the start of the southern hemisphere season in February.

It is this endless renewal of the laws that gives referees sleepless nights. The game currently has 22 laws, with no less than 173 subsections to those laws. Within the subsections there are further sub-clauses. Law 10, for instance, deals with foul play. Within that section, subsection four deals specifically with dangerous play and misconduct and runs to 19 separate sub-clauses. The 2015 rugby union law book devotes six pages to those sub-clauses.

Legality or otherwise
It is scarcely surprising, then, that mistakes occur in officiating. There were two particularly contentious issues involving the referee in last Saturday’s Test between South Africa and New Zealand. The first involved the invocation of uncontested scrums by French referee Jérôme Garcès. The other concerned the legality or otherwise of the match-winning try scored by New Zealand captain Richie McCaw.

Law 3, subsection five, deals with front-row replacements and substitutions. It has 20 sub-clauses. It doesn’t presume to tell anyone how the scrum works. That is covered in law 20, “The Scrum”, with its 13 subsections and 69 sub-clauses. Law 3.5 (g) is the first one we need to consider in relation to the Ellis Park Test match. It states:

“There must be sufficient front-row players to play at hooker, tight-head prop and loose-head prop who are suitably trained and experienced to ensure that on the first occasion that a replacement is required in each front-row position, the team can continue to play safely with contested scrums.”

The key words here are “the first occasion”. Last Saturday, Jannie du Plessis left the field with a knee injury. It was serious enough to make him unavailable for next week’s Durban Test against Argentina. His replacement on “the first occasion” was Vincent Koch. In attempting to score a try, Koch opened a facial wound that required treatment off the field. It was subsequently discovered that he also had damaged ribs.

Koch’s replacement was Trevor Nyakane, the Bulls prop, who has played on both sides of the scrum regularly this year in Super Rugby. But in terms of the law, Nyakane was the second replacement for Du Plessis, meaning that the referee, who on this occasion was guided by off-field officials, had to call for uncontested scrums.

It is interesting to note, however, that in getting one call right, the officials got another wrong. Law 3.5 (k) states: “Where uncontested scrums are ordered as a result of there being no suitably trained and experienced front-row replacement for any reason the team concerned shall not be entitled to replace the player whose departure caused uncontested scrums.”

In other words, the argument over whether or not Nyakane was a “suitably trained and experienced front-row replacement” should not have arisen. The law clearly states he should not have been allowed on the field and that the Springboks should have played on with 14 men. From this it is abundantly clear that the law is an ass and that those charged with its implementation are on a hiding to nothing.

Huge gap at the front
To emphasise the last point, consider McCaw’s 74th-minute try. He is positioned where most teams put their scrumhalf. A pod of forwards from each side bunches at the back of the line-out, leaving a huge gap at the front. The New Zealand hooker throws the ball into the gap where it is caught by McCaw who has moved into the line-out from his position as receiver and scores unmolested.

  Jonathan Kaplan was one of the finest referees ever. There is a link to McCaw’s try on his website where he writes: “As a receiver, he has to stand two metres away from the line-out. It is questionable whether he was. Moreover, he cannot move into the line-out to receive the ball until the ball has left the hands of the thrower. It is clear he does start moving before the ball has left the hands of the hooker.”

It is only clear, however, in stop- frame photography. In real time it looks like what it was: a superbly timed and rehearsed move that deserved to win a top-quality game of rugby. Kaplan asks why the television match official was not consulted, but if he had been there is no reason to suppose he would have overturned the decision. Moreover, he may well have stopped the game for five minutes to reach that conclusion. No one wants that, any more than they want wilful obfuscation in a law book that is far too complex.

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