Opinion: New decade – time for new look at the rugby laws

Alan Lorimer has his say on some changes to the game which he believes can improve rugby as a sporting contest and entertainment spectacle

Glasgow Warriors prop Aki Seiuli ended up being sent to the sin-bin last Saturday because he couldn't cope with Treviso's scrum - but is that a proportionate punishment? Image: Forsport/Daniele Resini
Glasgow Warriors prop Aki Seiuli ended up being sent to the sin-bin last Saturday because he couldn't cope with Treviso's scrum - but is that a proportionate punishment? Image: Forsport/Daniele Resini

WAS it just me who felt flung into a sea of despondency after watching Exeter v Saracens in the Gallagher Premiership and Munster v Leinster in the Pro14, two festive season matches that should have been showpiece viewing? 

Those lucky enough to have avoided these ‘spectacles’ of the sport, missed two totally boring games that should serve as a wake-up call for an urgent reassessment of some of rugby’s laws.

Of course, many may disagree about these games being ‘boring’. If your idea of entertainment (and let’s face it, that’s what the professional game is supposed to be all about) is one-pass rugby and huge players colliding with equally huge opponents as they try to batter their way over the line from zero meters then you would have enjoyed these two games and ‘ooh’d’ and ‘aah’d’ about the quality of the defences.

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Multiple phase play desperately close the try line is only one aspect of the game that perhaps has come about because of the current set of laws. There are many other areas of the sport that need examined as well. So here are my suggestions for a ‘different’ brand of rugby –

1. SCRUM PENALTIES: We can all recall important matches in which the outcome has been decided by a penalty goal, often as the result of a collapsed scrum. But should such a crime be punished by a full penalty especially as it can be difficult for a referee to determine which side is at fault, when getting that wrong can swing a game. Additionally, one might ask if a weaker prop should be penalised by the referee for not being as strong as his opponent? Would a slower wing be penalised for not being as quick as his opposite number?  I would propose that penalties at scrum time be replaced by free-kicks (other than foul play) while still retaining the penalty try. A free kick would speed up the game: kicks at goal take up an enormous amount of time.

2. THE MAUL: A licence to score?  At present the maul is legalised obstruction. Now compare this with ‘crossing’, which results in a penalty for obstructing the defence, even if there might be only one player in front of the ball carrier. In the maul there can be up to fourteen players in front of the ball carrier!  And that’s not obstruction?  Surely the only way to correct this anomaly is to insist that the ball carrier is at the front of the maul. Also it seems perverse to penalise a defender for coming in at the side when the maul generally slews, splinters and staggers, and rarely moves in a straight line.

Quite a few years ago, Scotland trialled a number of experimental laws that included allowing the maul to be taken down. Interestingly, there were no injuries during the period of the trial, probably because teams decided it was not worth using the maul when it could be stopped so easily. As a consequence, teams tended to run the ball a lot more and together with allowing handling in the ruck, the game speeded up.  Sadly other countries who glorify the maul did not accept the results of the experiment.

3. PENALTY KICK TO TOUCH: What encourages the maul tactic is the penalty kick to touch (often following a scrum ‘offence’).  Nothing is more predictable than that a team will  drive a line-out close to their opponents’ line after the penalty kick to touch. A few decades ago a team using a penalty to kick to touch would get the territorial gain but not the throw-in. Perhaps time to turn the clock back?

4. LIMIT THE NUMBER OF PHASES: Who will forget the denouement to Ireland’s game against France in Paris two years ago when in the dying minutes of the game, with France defending a narrow lead and being careful not to give away a penalty, Ireland went through 41 phases, much of it one pass rugby, before Johnny Sexton kicked the winning drop-goal. It might have been seen as efficient execution on the part of Ireland but the reality for France was that, by not risking giving away a penalty, the Tricolors had little chance of stopping the Irish advance.

Phase play is part of the game but do we want Joe Schmidt’s ‘Irish’ style of play to be the norm. If not there needs to be a rethink.

Multiple phase play, as mentioned earlier, can result in a team endlessly attacking their opponents’ try line from close range until they finally dent the defence or turnover ball.  It’s an aspect of rugby that is, arguably, unpalatable to watch and the fact that it is now adopted by schools must make the game difficult to sell to youngsters. So, to minimise the ‘Joe Schmidt’ effect, why not put a limit on the number of phases a team may go through before they have to use the ball in a different way. What ‘a different way’ means would be open to discussion, although requiring the team to kick the ball after ’n’ number of phases, as in Rugby League, might be one suggestion. Another point is that a limit on phase play might prevent a team from ‘winding down the clock’ in the last few minutes of a game.

5. THE CONTACT AREA: Multiple phase play is, of course, a result of the team in possession being able, with some ease, to recycle the ball after the tackle. This is simply because the laws, as interpreted, contrive to ensure the team in possession keeps the ball. So why not make the game more interesting by giving the defending side a fifty per cent chance of gaining possession after the tackle, thereby creating turnover ball, which, as we know affords the best chance to attack.

Just how this would be achieved is a bit tricky but the simple expedient of insisting the ball be released immediately after the tackle would certainly help: currently the tackled player is allowed time to carefully place the ball with a precision that allows his mates to then start another phase of play. There are, however, other ways in which the contact area could produce less predictable outcomes,  such as allowing a player on the ground (the tackler) to compete for the ball without getting back to his feet.

6. THE BOX KICK: My concern with this tactic is that it has dangerous consequences. So why not give the receiver a more protected status. For example there could be a five meter cordon zone around him.  A more radical suggestion might be to allow a player under the high ball to ‘mark’ it anywhere inside his own half.

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The above laws, of course, impact on each other. For example, a scrum penalty, however dubious, can result in a penalty kick to touch and then a driving maul from the ensuing line-out, and possibly followed by endless phase play virtually on the try line.  Take away the scrum penalty or the awarding of the throw-in after a penalty kick to touch and the number of mauls might be reduced.

I am aware that any attempt to improve the game by changing the laws will be neutralised by another law: namely that of unintended consequences, hatched by clever coaches as they spot opportunities to exploit changes. It is a never ending game of cat and mouse, but we must always keep trying to think of ways of positively evolving the sport.

  • Do you have any law changes that you believe will improve rugby? Get in touch via social media or email contact@theoffsideline.com with your suggestions.

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About Alan Lorimer 328 Articles
Scotland rugby correspondent for The Times for six years and subsequently contributed to Sunday Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and Reuters. Worked in Radio for BBC. Alan is Scottish rugby journalism's leading voice when it comes to youth and schools rugby.


  1. In international or other high tariff matches, a second scrum referee should be involved specifically to referee the scrums. He/she should be an ex-front row player and come onto the field purely for set scrums. When this happens the main referee should stand well back to monitor other possible offences. Once the scrum is over, the scrum referee can return off the pitch.

  2. When a lineout is awarded, the throwing in and defending teams must immediately go to the line-out and throw the ball in. If a team has a Mothers’Union meeting to discuss the line-out, it must be immediately awarded to the defending team. This to stop the current trend of time taken to the throw-in.

    Separately, stop completely “Water boys”etc from running onto the pitch. They should only be allowed with the referees explicit permission. If a player needs a drink, he/she can go to the touch line and are immediately out of play until they return to an on-site position. The only people allowed on the pitch must be where a medical emergency is suspected and then only accredited medics should be permitted on the field of play. Strategic thinking about the game should be team (captain?) led. Strategic discussion is a half-time event.

  3. Get rid of calling Mark- just another interruption in the flow of the game and should a full back really be rewarded for catching the ball?
    Length of time playing advantage seems very inconsistent whether for a free kick or penalty. Advantage should be over after 20 seconds or 20 metres have been gained

  4. Reduce time to take kick at goal to 30secs, and either outlaw kicking tees or make one uniform type

  5. Please change the advantage rule. We’re trying to reduce injuries but allow phase after phase of collisions where they offenders are basically wasting their time and effort as the ref will go all the way back and give the original penalty unless a try is scored. In most other sports you get one advantage. There doesn’t even seem to be a clear reason why refs think the advantage is over.

  6. Totally agree with proposal 1 – freekick instead of pen for collapsing, though potential pen try in dangerous areas

    Don’t agree with limiting phases, wish Scotland were able to actually have the choice of doing the kind of phrases IRE did in FRA.

    Would look into speeding up the scrum and also reducing the 90-second limit for penalties. When Halfpenny is kicking, seems like a mini-age.

  7. Interesting article, Alan. I would like to see strict adherence to Law 13.4 in order to improve the contact area: “Players on their feet and without the ball must not fall on or over players on the ground who have the ball or who are near it. Sanction: Penalty.”

  8. Controversial perhaps but I think 15 players is too many, it causes congestion on the pitch. A reduction to 14 would open up games and make them more entertaining.

    Multiple phase play is killing Rugby I’d limit the number of phases to 10.

  9. Agree with the maul changes. It’s currently undefendable usually without conceding a penalty.

    I thought the prop and winger comment quite amusing though. A faster winger up against a slower one will usually lead to at least conceding a try. So yes if you are up against a stronger prop then tough.

    How many hookers train to hook the ball in today’s game? So maybe the commentary about putting the ball down the middle would encourage a bit more of that?

  10. It is strange how Rugby Union is the more globally popular game yet everyone nowadays wants to turn it into Rugby League.

    If you are not interested in any of the technical (and equally skillful to running) aspects of the game maybe you should watch the 13 man code.

  11. What about insistence the ball into the scrum is put in straight, that is to say, resulting in reasonable prospect of a 50/50 challenge to secure it for the winner’s side. So many scrums have become pointless interruptions. Wjth the ball almost inevitably emerging on the “put-in” side, what sort of competition is that?

    • Agree totally. The putting in team has the advantage of being fractionally nearer the ball. If the opposing hooker is fast, he/she can get a strike against the head.

  12. The point made the the scrum seems to be the route of much that is unpalatable about the game is a valid one well made. It is now far removed from the original intention as a game restart to a key strategic game of chess between behemoths. I agree there should be no penalty awarded unless foul play. This would eliminate the multiple boring and time consuming repeat scrums as a option by the team “on top” who are seeking the penalty rather than play from hand.

  13. Funnily enough, I agree with scrum and maul changes you suggest!!! Tackle area needs to be refereed more aggressively as too many players sealing-off preventing competition for the ball and many referees calling tackle when under the current law there is no tackle. Remove laws from law book which referees consistently fail to penalise or be consistent, attacking players joining maul in-front of the ball and coming in at the side of tackle, ruck and maul. Defending players nearly always penalised for these offences. Also players voluntarily going down on one knee to make it a tackle should be free-kicked.

  14. The biggest improvement to the existing laws would be for the ref to stop the game clock when he calls for a scrum and not restart the clock until the ball is actually in play again. That rule obviously doesn’t apply to the lower levels as we need to clock to run at all times so we can get to the bar asap

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