It looks like World Rugby (WR) reads theblitzdefence because several weeks after we looked at 5 existing laws referees should apply WR’s grand sounding Laws Representation Group (LRG) has issued a number of enhancements to current laws.
Admittedly there are better times to make changes to rugby’s laws than on the eve of the Rugby World Cup but it seems as if the governing body has recognised that major overhaul of the laws aren’t required in many cases, just the correct application of those that already exist.
We look at each of the changes and assess their effectiveness and likely impact on how the game is played.
High tackles and neck contact – law 10.4 (e)
Every time the head or the neck is deliberately grabbed or choked, the offending player runs the risk of receiving a yellow or red card
Cleanouts around the neck must be penalised
Referees have taken an increasingly strict approach to any contact in or around the neck area in the tackle over the last few years and it looks like this trend will continue, which is a positive stance.
In contrast to neck contact at the tackle, players have been rarely penalised for cleaning out a defender at the ruck by holding the neck and twisting or pulling it to the side of the ruck. Where the head and neck go the body tends to follow – providing a quick way of removing a jackaling player at the ruck.
This judoesque technique has become common place but it is dangerous and World Rugby are right to stamp it out. It would also be nice to see clubs take the initiative and stop training players to carry out this technique, rather than let WR take a lead.
A positive change.
Challenging players in the air – Law 10.4(i)
Play on – Fair challenge with both players in a realistic position to catch the ball. Even if the player(s) land(s) dangerously, play on
Penalty only – Fair challenge with wrong timing – No pulling down
Yellow card – Not a fair challenge, there is no contest and the player is pulled down landing on his back or side
Red card – Not a fair challenge, there is no contest and the player lands on his head, neck or shoulder
On paper a lot of these definitions make sense but how they are applied in a game will still be a challenge.
The main issue seems to stem from the lack of clarity around what is a “fair challenge”. The “penalty only” scenario talks about a fair challenge “with wrong timing”; by definition this is then surely an unfair challenge?
The insertion of the word “pulling” applies to some scenarios and introduces an element of recklessness but a large number of the more controversial incidents we have seen recently haven’t involved one player “pulling” down the other. Take this Finn Russell- Dan Biggar incident from this year’s 6 nations game.
Finn Russell received a yellow card for this challenge but let’s look at a couple of freeze frames of the incident. In this first image we see the two players both focusing on the ball when they are perhaps 8-9 metres away from each other,
In this second frame we see that when the players are about 4 metres apart Russell realises he isn’t in a position to challenge for the ball so stops his advance as he plants his right foot. It is then the forward momentum of Dan Biggar that takes him in to Russell.
There is no doubt this is a dangerous coming together that puts players’ safety in jeopardy but how would the new clarifications guide us in this sort of example where two players are making genuine efforts to compete for the ball but there is no malicious intent? There is no “pulling” involved so according to the new guidance this shouldn’t be a yellow card offence but it is a dangerous situation.
The second problem with the clarification is that the difference between a yellow card is based on how the player lands, not on the actions of the offending player. When a player interferes with another player while they are in the air they don’t know the outcome of their actions, only the action they are undertaking ie pulling a shirt.
This is why to make matters clear the offence should be based on the action of the offending player. It is often other factors other than the “pull” which result in a non-offending player falling on his head or shoulders such as their balance in the air, speed of approach. These are outside the control of the offending player so shouldn’t be factored in to the punishment.
The aim of the law clarifications should be to try and reduce the number of potentially dangerous game situations which arise, rather than just focus on penalising those offences which have an element of recklessness or are deliberate. The WR changes don’t provide any clarity in respect of reducing the former as the Finn Russell example shows.
The prevalence of the high kick and challenge has grown in the last 4/5 years and with it the number of mid-air collisions has also increased. In most cases a genuine attempt is made by both players to compete for the ball but these still puts them at risk.
We think there needs to be a more radical approach to the issue around challenges in the air so players, supporters and referees all understand what is fair and what isn’t.
One suggestion is that if a high kick is executed the team that kicked the ball cannot compete for it but has to stand off until the defending player catches the ball or the ball hits the floor. This would discourage a lot of the negative kicking and have the benefit of removing the dangerous challenge in the air. The downside is it removes the element of competition and negates a key skill that can be entertaining to watch executed.
This clarification has failed to clear up the issue and we expect a number of controversial incidents to still arise in the forthcoming World Cup.
Next time, we look at the remaining law clarifications – the Scrum and the Maul.