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

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.

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