With rugby struggling under the sheer mass of its players and the negativity of much of the tactics employed – or at least the most successful tactics - it appears certain that a rash of law changes – or should that be changes in law emphasis – are on the way.
Consensus is that nothing will be done until after the World Cup. It’s too close to the Grand Shindig to start experimenting now. The IRB caused a bit of a ruckus in the past when they asked referees to ensure there was clear daylight between the tackle being completed and the tackler competing for the ball on the ground, between rounds two and three of the Six Nations. We all remember the image of O’Driscoll and Wallace looking aghast as a penalty was awarded against Wally when he had his feet planted on the ground. The week prior Wally would have won the penalty.
So that won’t be happening, but we can expect a comprehensive post-world cup review. The trouble with these law changes is they are all subject to game theoretic issues. Take the laws around what happens after the tackle: load the dice too far in favour of the defensive team and it’s obvious what will happen. But load the dice too heavily in favour of the attacking team and the defensive side will simply reserve the right not to compete. Why chase a losing cause when you can keep all your defenders in a line and fan out across the pitch? Which will bring us back to where we started. It’s a balance that’s nigh on impossible to strike.
The areas most likely up for review are the ruck, the maul and, obviously, the scrum. Issues around tackle height and the choke tackle may also be up for debate.
Once the maul is set it’s difficult for the defending team to deal with, as the attacking team is allowed to twist the maul ninety degrees and so long as one opponent remains bound, the ref shouts ‘same maul’ and the thing trundles forward. Sacking the maul at source or refusing to compete are the best options available for teams defending lineouts close to the try-line. To some, refusing to defend a maul is against the spirit of the game, but it is hard to deny a team their entitlement to do so. Besides, the attacking team only has to delay the transfer of the ball to the back of their wedge; if they keep it in front they can simply walk forward. It seems more than likely that attacking teams will start to denude this threat by better managing their ball transfer.
The scrum remains a mess, but chances are any changes will be to what happens after a scrum failure than to the technicalities of how the front rows mash into one another. Possibilities include downgrading of certain offences to stopping the match-clock for resets or simply cutting out resets altogether, awarding a free kick to one orother team after one scrum failure.
There might be 10-20 scrums in a game, and a similar number of mauls and lineouts, but there are over 100 rucks, so what exactly is or isn’t allowed to happen once a player is tackled has a huge bearing on the game. One thing that may well come up for review is the much vaunted ‘golden metre’ where the attacking team tries to ruck far beyond the ball and effectively move the ruck forward. This used to be called ‘going over the top’ and was illegal. The main barrier to this is that the Kiwis are the best in the world at it, and they will whinge and moan a lot if it comes under threat. Clearing out by lifting legs into the air may also be reviewed; this resulted in a sending off offence for Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey recently, but it’s not really clear what is and isn’t allowed.
The choke-tackle whingeing by teams who are often exposed by it has begun, and chances are this will at least come under the microscope. But outlawing it seems ridiculous. It could be made harder to execute by lowering the tackle-height, but it would need to be demonstrated that tackling at chest height has a direct impact on player safety.