IRB must find solution as breakdown has become a lottery

The Tri-Nations and the start of the new Northern Hemisphere domestic season sees a return to normality after the abandonment of the misguided and much-derided Experimental Law Variations. But let’s not pretend we are in the clear yet.

Aside from the IRB and RFU administering bans on players for completely arbitrary lengths of time, there is one area of the game in particular which remains a source of head-scratching, confusion, irritation and bewilderment to players, coaches and spectators alike: the breakdown.


The breakdown has become the single most important area of the game and has been debated at length on this blog. Traditionally, primary possession has been the key but, while this still retains huge importance, it is domination at the breakdown which can make or break a team. But a team can have the best openside flanker in the world, have 15 players who are strong and technical over the ball and they are still completely at the mercy of the interpretation of the referee.

Equally, players can flop over the ball, leaning on the prostrate opponent, making no attempt to steal the ball but instead pinning it to the tackled player so he gets penalised for holding on. Meanwhile, elsewhere there are players flying in from all angles, some on their feet, some not. Each referee is going to have a different interpretation on any given day. Put simply, the most important facet of the modern game is a lottery.

Let’s not be too harsh on the referees here. It is towards them that we direct our ire during the heat of a match but they are really on a hiding to nothing. In short, these are the questions he must ask himself, often all within 2 seconds:

– Has the tackled player released the ball?
– Has the tackler released the tackled player and made an effort to roll away?
– When is the ruck formed?
– Has the player trying to steal the ball come from onside and is he supporting his own weight?
– Have all other players joined the ruck ‘through the gate’?
– Have any players gone off their feet?
– Is the tackled player not releasing the ball or is he unable to because the opposition are killing it?

This is a lot of information to process and come to an accurate decision with so much going on. Often much of it is purely judgemental and at many breakdowns there are several offences being committed at any given time. Players are prepared to bend the rules because they know that sometimes it will go for them just as sometimes it will not. Referees have to go on their first view which is why there are regular situations when a referee gives umpteen penalties over the course of the game for the same offence. Having given it once or twice, that is what he is looking out for and if that goes against the gameplan of one team, they get pinged off the park. Essentially the official has too many things to look at for him to get it right every time.

This is clearly unsatisfactory. A serious sport cannot allow one of its crucial areas to be a farce. Teams should not have to ‘play to the referee’. During the 3rd Lions test, at least 6 penalties were given at the breakdown which the replays showed to have been incorrect . The problem is clearly the laws. So what is the solution? The IRB have introduced yet another new law designed to alleviate this problem. Now the tackled player may get straight up and try to steal the ball from any angle. For him there is no offside line. Therefore, if he gets over the ball, all the referee has to assess is whether he is on his feet. If he is and cannot get the ball, the assumption is that the tackled player is holding on – penalty to the defence. If he is not on his feet – penalty to the attack. Everyone else must still enter through the gate and stay on their feet.

This has the advantage of reducing the aspects for the referee to look at, making his initial decision more clear cut. However, there are still problems. There is still the difficulty of judging whether the tackler is supporting his own weight. It may also produce even slower ball because he will be so low that the opposition will struggle to clear him out, whether he manages to steal the ball or not.

It also loads the game even further in favour of the defence. This law was in force during the Lions tour and the South Africans were more practised at it than the Lions, none more so than Heinrich Brussouw who caused absolute mayhem by springing up and getting so low over the ball that the attack could not clear him out. The natural progression of this is that teams will be reluctant to attack wide because they know that if any player gets remotely isolated, he will be turned over. While the IRB should be commended for trying to sort this area out, there must be reservations as to whether this law is the way forward.

The other major recent development has been the number of penalties which are being awarded at the breakdown. In the past, if a ball was trapped and several offences were being committed all at once, the referee would be heard to say ‘it’s a mess, attacking/defending team going forward, their scrum’. There was nothing too wrong with this and it meant that fewer games were tarnished or even decided by incorrect or inconsistent refereeing decisions.

The problem with any law-making in potentially grey areas is that coaches, players and analysts will find ways around them and use them to their advantage. There is no easy solution. My preference would be a return to favouring the side going forward and the award of more scrums rather than penalties in instances where many offences are being committed (this is far removed from the sanctions law trialled under the ELVs). With kickers able to nail anything inside the opposition half, it is crucial to minimise the potential for injustice. For now, it seems to be mostly a case of trial and error.

By Stuart Peel

One thought on “IRB must find solution as breakdown has become a lottery

  1. To be fair, the first thing a referee looks at is does the tackler release the tackled player and roll away. Then we look for arriving player (from both sides) staying on their feet before looking at whether the tackled player has released the ball and if a ruck has formed and the subsequent requirement for arrivals through the gate.
    Some thing there will pretty much give you a penalty every time unless you apply the referee’s judgment on ‘materiality’ has the offense prevented fair contest or made a ‘real’ difference to the game. This allows the game to keep moving and whilst not in the Law book, it is a little recognised tool that referees frequently use for game management and keeping things flowing.
    Whistling for a penalty is preferable to a succession of scrums as it keeps things legal and players honest. That said, if you are going to blow for a scrum its best to do it quickly before player frustration at what they see as foul play going unpunished.
    Top level players are more than good enough to keep the break-down legal and functioning, and whilst the referees will always have some degree of interpretation this will always be exaggerated by the positioning of the referee and the luxury of having multiple slo-mo camera angles in the commentary box.

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