After the thrilling Heineken Cup quarter finals and some cracking Guinness Premiership encounters, rugby has suddenly become entertaining again. We argue that this is due to teams finally getting used to the new breakdown laws and that if the RFU and IRB are chasing entertainment, their best bet is to leave the laws alone for a while.
The laws of the game and the myriad changes made to them in recent times have been very much under the microscope this season. After the rejection of the majority of the Experimental Law Variations and the controversies over interpretation at the breakdown, not to mention rules such as straight scrum feeds, rear foot offside and obstruction, none of which seem to be enforced anymore, there is a lack of consensus regarding the direction in which the game should go.
The early part of the season was desperate and it was considerably due to recent ill-judged law changes. The defensive team had the upper hand at the breakdown and, crucially, were allowed to have it by the laws and the way in which they were interpreted. The tackler no longer had to roll away but could jump back to his feet and, with no offside line, could attempt to steal the ball. Referees allowed the tacklers huge amounts of leeway so it simply was not worth it for the attacking team to run from deep because if a player found himself even slightly isolated he had to decide whether to surrender possession or concede a penalty. Hoofing it aimlessly and playing no rugby in your own half was the only way to be assured of not conceding position. And the banning of kicking the ball out on the full having passed it back into the 22 meant that these kicking exchanges were interminable.
But after the turgid early months of the season when teams were paralysed by fear we have seen some outstanding stuff in recent weeks. There have been those in the Guinness Premiership who have flown the flag for exciting rugby from the start, such as Northampton and London Irish. They have been joined by Gloucester, Bath and to some extent Wasps, Saracens and Leicester in recognising that with risk can come considerable reward.
And last weekend we had four of the most memorable Heineken Cup matches to have been played, certainly the most exciting quarter final weekend the tournament has yet seen. Each encounter was punctuated with ambition, skill, tension and intensity. A loose opposition kick is now regarded as something to be capitalised upon with ball in hand, rather than a chance to gain an advantage in the kicking duel. After all the doom-mongering in the early weeks of the season during which entertainment was at a premium, we are now on the verge of being spoilt by what is on offer.
To what do we attribute this improvement? There are 2 key reasons which can be highlighted. Firstly, referees have been instructed to be harder on the defenders and allow a little more leniency toward the attackers. At each breakdown there are around 7 possible infringements and in most instances at least 2 are being perpetrated. The referee cannot be expected to see everything at once. During the autumn, with the removal of the offside line for the tackler, the focus was very much upon the tackled player not releasing the ball. What was not enforced was that the tackler had to release him and get to his feet before he could play the ball. The tackler was using the momentum of the tackle to roll over his opponent and pin the ball to him while resting his knees on the prostrate player. Under this interpretation it was almost impossible for the tackled player to release the ball without being turned over. The defence held all the aces.
The law-makers realised the folly and have instructed the referees to focus more upon the defender. Now we see referees pinging the defender for not releasing the tackler or not returning to his feet. This allows the attacking team an extra second to get close in support and clear the ruck out as well as allowing the tackler to present the ball in a more advantageous fashion. Therefore not only can the attacking team retain the ball, they can also get quicker ball. The law has not been changed, merely clarified. Furthermore, referees are far more prepared to sin bin defenders for these offences which acts as an extra deterrent.
The other reason for the improvement is simply that teams have got used to the laws and have figured out how to play positive rugby within that framework. And herein lies the main point. Every time the men in suits play around with the laws, it takes some time for teams to adapt and the game goes through a turgid phase. And just when things have sorted themselves out, they change them again. I can think of very few sports which tinker with their rules/laws as much as rugby union. Our football brethren are still trying to get their heads round the change to the offside rule and there are those in cricket who pine for a return to the back foot no ball law, but these are rare and simple alterations – what on earth would they make of the changes to the breakdown in rugby union?
And in the majority of cases all the changes have done is clog the game up. Over the past two decades we have seen, among other changes and consequences, the following:
– in the case of a collapsed maul the ball is turned over rather than awarded to the team going forward – this means teams seek to ruck rather than maul leading to the interminable number of mini rucks we see;
– the first men to a ruck can play the ball with their hands rather than blowing over it – this means defending teams commit just one or two men to the breakdown to try to steal a turnover and rest string out across the pitch, limiting space;
– you may no longer ruck players lying on the wrong side with your boots – this has removed the deterrent from lying on the wrong side pleading that you can’t move. When you could ruck with your feet people got the hell out of the way;
– there is no offside line for the tackler, as discussed above;
– the use it or lose it law is not enforced meaning that the ball sits for seemingly hours at the back of a ruck before the scrum half plays it.
Some of these changes have had their positive effects and it has not all been detrimental to the game. But every time the laws are meddled with there are just as many negative consequences as positive which begs the question of whether it was really worth changing in the first place, with all the dull rugby we have to watch while they are bedding down.
The past few weeks have seen some exhilarating rugby in both Hemispheres. Referees have got the right balance and teams are gaining confidence and with it ambition. One can only hope that the powers that be receive the message loud and clear to leave the game alone for a while and let tactics and approaches develop organically rather than being so prescriptive with the law book. And in the meantime, we can rejoice that our game is entertaining again.
By Stuart Peel