Law Re-Emphasising

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.

The Maul

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.

The Ruck

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 Tackle

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.

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  1. Amiga500

     /  March 4, 2015

    There is also the question of how do officials enforce new (or re-emphasised) laws.

    For instance, how high is too high for a tackle that becomes a maul that becomes a turnover ball? (aka choke tackle) What if the first tackler doesn’t completely stop the ball carrier with a tackle around the waist, then one of his mates arrives, tackling around the arms to prevent ball release (or trying to rip the ball), the ball carrier is then joined by another of his mates seeking to get the ball back and you have a maul. More pile in, ball becomes unplayable, (A) scrum to defending team? or (B) penalty to attacking team for high tackle (which was initially at waist height)?

  2. Brensg

     /  March 4, 2015

    Right going out on a limb here, but is there ANYTHING to be said for downgrading infringements at the ruck by the ATTACKING team to free kicks rather than penalties? It would encourage the side going forward and possibly speed up the game by teams taking quick taps and running the ball back rather than kick to touch, line out, maul etc… Surely turning over possession is punishment enough for getting isolated in attack?

    • Brilliant idea

    • This might risk going too far the other way. Would defensive teams bother to compete for turnovers if they couldn’t get a penalty for illegal behaviour by opponents?

    • Billy

       /  March 4, 2015

      If there was any danger at all of a try, the defending team could just blatantly infringe. Worst case – yellow card.

      Not related to this post necessarily but I swear people just want rugby league sometimes. If people don’t like rucks and set pieces, there is an alternative…

      • Brensg

         /  March 4, 2015

        @WoC yeah that would be a risk. Still think it might be worth a shot as a trial even at a lower level of the game to see if it works.
        @Billy that’s why I said attacking teams only. For defending teams it would still be a penalty. It would promote phase building rather than artificially giving the ball back, the opposite of league if anything. Ugh… League… Sick… *Shudder*

    • Topsy

       /  March 5, 2015

      Attacking teams would never under any circumstance release the ball when the defending team is trying to poach in that case. The worst they could do is give away a free which would mean their teammates would have that extra few seconds to get organised. Otherwise good idea. Trouble is coaches/teams always think of a workaround.

  3. Yossarian

     /  March 4, 2015

    Laws of the game also contradict each other. A tackler has to release the tackled player on the ground. If it is interpreted as “not held” he can get back up again!(thankfully refs are calling a tackle completed and penalising people who don’t release on the ground)

    With the maul the attacking players often join the maul by the side. they could enforce the rule so stringently applied to defending teams about joining through the back. This would require a transfer of the ball and reduce the speed.
    Likewise the choke tackle-enforce the same rule. Often when teams see the choke tackle is on they join the maul from the other side ensuring the ball won’t be playable if it goes to ground.

    • SportingBench

       /  March 4, 2015

      Also a lot of mauls resulting from choke tackles are deliberately brought to ground by the defending (choking) team which of course, should be a penalty.
      Another point is that as soon as some choke resultant mauls hit the ground, the ref gives the scrum immediately without seeing if the ball can be played anyway.

      I definitely think that entry to maul through the back rather than the side needs to be enforced equally (and the same at ruck time). Surely it is easier for players and refs to deal with if they are all thinking that side entry by anyone equals penalty. It does seem at the ruck that only the defenders are looked at.
      Finally, at a lot of mauls in the pro game, the binding is very lose with the ball carrier or the player attached to the ball carrier (and often directing them) coming unbound briefly. Referees aren’t looking at this and therefore allowing the maul to effectively reform illegally.

    • curates_egg

       /  March 5, 2015

      Back when I played rugby (longer than it feels), you had to automatically release the ball as soon as you were tackled and hit the deck. Not sure how it ever evolved away from that. Players now decide how and when they want to place/present.

  4. One thing I heard that was interesting was preventing defending scrum halves from going past the point where the tunnel is to help make the scrum an actual attacking platform again. Not sure how easy that’d be to enforce though, probably needs something to happen with the scrum itself first.

    I think contesting balls in the air could still do with clarifying, as I think the law still puts too much emphasis on players in the air from a discipline POV. Finn Russell’s card/ban is probably a good example where you could argue that Biggar was going in with reckless abandon so that he would either (a) win the ball or (b) milk the penalty/card.

    • Amiga500

       /  March 4, 2015

      Scrum half cannot advance beyond the last foot of the pack?

      Better yet – the defending team’s scrum half isn’t allowed within 10 metres of the scrum like the rest of the backs.

      • Amiga500

         /  March 4, 2015

        Thinking being:
        – The defending scrum half cannot chop the 8 at the base.
        – If its won against the head, usually the 8 picks up and runs/passes, so having no scrum-half won’t affect the initial play, indeed, another player in the back-line can be an advantage in this scenario.

        One disadvantage is that any miscontrol by the 8 is not punished by loss of possession as there is no opposition scrum half to pilfer the ball.

    • A lot to be said for this. It’s ridiculous how much niggle the defending nine is allowed to get away with at the base of the scrum.

      • And as the you drop the grades this 9 scraggy get stuff seems to grow exponentially.
        If @PTranman’s idea got through it could be a great thing not only for the pros but more importantly for the rest of us togging out on our weekends. These trends/law changes have a major impact further down. Can be best described using the examples of refusing the maul which I’m seeing first hand executed & refereed poorly all over the country. There is also the trend of using ‘golden meter’ momentum to get essentially rolling pick and gos. Although the less we say about Metro refs the better!!

  5. Rob

     /  March 4, 2015

    Hi there, long term reader, first time caller!

    I kind of feel like a lot of the issues in the game are just part of the cycle we have in the sport. I’m still relatively young but even in the 12 years of adult life watching rugby there have been loads of trends. I can remember people bemoaning the dominance of kicking 10s like Wilkinson and ROG, that period of time where Eddie tried to get us to offload all the time cos Wales did it; periods where defences were dominant, especially with the introduction of league style defences, and times where England and Scotland tried running the ball from their own 22.

    Tactics tend to come and go depending on personnel and the game ebbs and flows and adapts. Also rugby is a very unique sport in that due to the complexity of the rules, people are always thinking up new ways to circumvent them – I certainly know I’ve been pinged on the pitch for trying ludicrous stuff at the breakdown, trying to explain my thinking to a very bewildered referee!

    I know you’ve bemoaned the scrum, but personally, while still not good enough, it’s improved significantly with the new rules myself.

    Apropos of nothing, my club’s call for a crossfield kick is to shout “JAPAN!” – which means this days I spend a lot of time randomly shouting JAPAN! at the tv watching Ireland to the confusion of many in the pub

    • I agree , let evolution take its course

    • Thanks for ‘making the call’. Most definitely, these things tend to be cyclical. It’s a strange sport in many ways, there is no other where the laws are like shifting sands, constantly being tweaked and changed.

  6. Suggestions –
    1. The tackler cannot contest for the ball at the ruck and must simply roll away. Non tacklers continue to contest as normal.
    2. You cannot kick a scrum penalty at goal, removing the scrum’s disproportionate effect on the scoreline, but still providing advantage for dominant scrum.
    3.Only 3 substitutions allowed per game – forcing out massive players who cannot aerobically compete for 80 mins and open up the game for more agility, speed and guile when players tire, therefore creating a place for the faster and more skilful.

    I’d also like to see a move away from the nonsense of being red-carded and banned for a clear and obvious accident. Perhaps the only way is to ban players from leaping into traffic to retrieve a kick (not a necessary action). It’s not one I’m hugely in favour of, but you can’t have red cards striking for a player simply being committed to the game.

    • SportingBench

       /  March 4, 2015

      There is definitely some merit in your first suggestion but I’d modify it somewhat.
      I think a tackler can compete for the ball but must first get back onside first i.e. jump up and enter through an imaginary gate.

      Definitely against the suggestion by Brensg of downgrading attacking infringements at the ruck to only a free kick as that is just a licence to cheat. As andrew097 says below, if anything referees should be stricter on making the attacker release the ball more quickly (and then get their hands off it completely) as the ruck is supposed to be a contest.

      Another thought is that refs need to enforce players of both sides joining a ruck are supposed to bind rather than hit an opposition player. Players launching themselves to smash the opposition out of the way is dangerous and should be a penalty for not binding and for going off their feet under the current rules. Enforcing this would speed up the game as rucks would be won quicker but potentially more players would be fully committed to rucks opening space.

  7. Bueller

     /  March 4, 2015

    ‘Going over the top’ is still illegal, as far as I’m aware. The issue is not trying ‘to ruck far beyond the ball’ (that is the objective of any decent attacking support player provided he in turn has support), but rather at what point you engage the opposing player.
    Or am I misinterpreting what you mean by ‘golden metre’? Not trying to knit-pick, but am genuinely interested.

    • Billy

       /  March 4, 2015

      Agreed. WoC (and other blogs) have misinterpreted this.

      • Bueller

         /  March 5, 2015

        @Billy – I assume you are talking about OvalDigest’s piece a while ago. Ya that didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to me either. Radio silence from the lads on this one so I’m assuming they were mis-informed by that piece also, as it’s the only other place I have ever seen mention of the ‘golden metre’ in that context.

  8. Bock

     /  March 4, 2015

    There’s one problem at the root of all rugby’s problems: bigger faster players on a pitch whose size hasn’t changed.

    So we should make the pitch wider. Not possible? Fine, lose one player.

    14 v 14 rugby for:

    more running and line breaks,
    less kicking,
    fewer concussions,
    smaller forwards and hence fewer collapsed scrums,
    more small skillful players,
    fewer big skill-free players.

  9. curates_egg

     /  March 4, 2015

    Nice piece.
    Dirgefest as the game is right now, I guess we don’t want them to change until after the World Cup.

    Do you think the penalty against O’Brien(?) for tackling the ball carrier in the non-contested maul on Sunday was a penalty?

    • I think Murray Kinsela (who else?) cleared that up pretty well

      The problem, essentially, was that O’Brien wasn’t effective enough and then they got caught between two stools.

      • curates_egg

         /  March 5, 2015

        That’ll do it. I thought O’Brien’s tackle was a bit half-hearted but hadn’t noticed Dev binding (why did he do that?). Good to have gotten away with it relatively cheaply: they will need to come up with a more effective way of handling that situation if they want to continue with the stand-off maul defence.

  10. Luc

     /  March 4, 2015

    I think something needs to be done about the offside line. Defences are now usually well in front of the back foot at the ruck which means the space for attackers is closed off almost immediately.

    It has been suggested before that a second ref is introduced to police the offside line, but surely the touch judges could do this?

  11. andrew097

     /  March 4, 2015

    A cure for a lot of ills at the breakdown is the ball carrier should release the ball at once. It used to be like this and worked better because the ball is available to play. One of the reasons we have twenty phases is because it is so difficult to turn the ball over.

  12. crowlem1

     /  March 4, 2015

    A stricter policing of the offside line would make a huge difference imo. Defences nearly always steal a yard or so these days, with the ref/(touch judge) either missing it or unwilling to call it. This problem seems to have crept more and more into the game in the last year or so (or maybe I’m noticing it more).

    It may not drastically improve matters, but the extra split second or so the attacking team will have on the ball (particularly with the prevalence of blitz defences these days) should improve the team with the ball’s ability to get over the gainline and build attacks from there.

    • Agree, in a game which is won on marginal gains, a second or two, or a metre or two would make a big difference.

      • Wrote this last night but my banjaxed phone ate in. I know it’s a less technical point than a lot of stuff being raised in the other comments & possibly more of a shift in policy than in aw but touch judges need to stop being largely decorative. There’s all sorts of skulduggery at ruck time, particularly involving offside that could be easily called by them. The ref is only one pair of eyes & it’s gotten to the stage where it’s pretty much impossible for him to keep on top of everything particularly at international level where a massive part of the game is trying to get away with as much as humanly possible. Obviously these still needs to be a hierarchy & a chain of command but seriously, why are they even there half the time.

        I think it would also help, where possible, if touch judges who are STANDING RIGHT THERE could be given a stronger arbitration role in whether a ball was grounded, a foot was in touch etc. I know some things need to be watched back & the odds of human error are higher but constant referral to the TMO or even refs watching things back on the big screen (Love you Steve) really slows things down. This will of course come back to haunt me when a touchie screws up on awarding an Irish try but I assume should that come to pass you’ll all have the grace to not mention it.

  13. Bill H

     /  March 4, 2015

    I think if they were only allowed award a free kick before the ball was put into the scrum we would see much more scrums completed. Once the ball is in the scrum and there is a contest then penalties can be awarded. I think slipping or losing you bind should be lowered to a free kick as this can happen at any stage, especially with the studs players wear and how tight their shirts are these days. That means a penalty will only be awarded when it is a contest and to the team going forward or if the opposition collapse on purpose. Also any frees awarded before the put in cant be used to scrum again, this will speed up the game aswell.

    • Totally agree, and we made many of these points in our Scrum Woes piece not long ago. Look at Italy v Scotland at the weekend. Italy walked the scrum backwards and Scotland cynically collpased it. Italy used the penalty to set another scrum and push for a penalty try but one of their lads slipped his bind. Same punishment, but the other way. Totally inequitable! Slipping a bind is just too easy to happen accidentally to merit a straight-arm penalty.

    • McShane

       /  March 4, 2015

      I might misinterpreting you, but do you really think scrum penalties should be awarded to the team going forward? I hate seeing teams milking penalties just by moving their scrum forward if the other team is doing nothing wrong and just as an inferior scrum. Ball carriers aren’t penalized if they get smashed behind the gain line, why should teams be penalized for losing a fairly contested scrum?

      • Yossarian

         /  March 5, 2015

        Agree with this. It is possible for a scrum to march backwards while not actually infringeing!Leinster vs Castres did this in H-Cup. If props stay straight/keep bind/backrow stays down where is the penalty? too many refs just decide “yea,they are marching forward-penalty to them” Northampton march to the final they lost to leinster was built on that. Hartley/Tongauia would drive/stand up the opposition front row and the power of their back 5 would drive them forward. They were technically infringing but gaining the penalties!

        • SportingBench

           /  March 5, 2015

          Noticed in this 6 Nations there have been a couple of correct penalties against the “stronger” scrum for wheeling when they have driven the retreating scrum past 90 degrees. I think this is great not just as it enforces the rules but it encourages teams to play the ball rather than just try and milk penalties which the “scrum going forward gets a penalty” attitude (which too many referees already have) encourages.

  14. Riocard Ó Tiarnaigh

     /  March 4, 2015

    Maybe I’m missing something, but as it stands the choke tackle only works, cos the scrum is awarded to the team that can’t make use of their possession. If the scrum were awarded to the team going forward – as it used to be – one couldn’t gain an advantage anymore just by holding an opponent up and preventing ball release.

    • Correct, but it’s probably right that the team with the ball has to be incentivised to use the ball, otherwise we open oursleves to a different myriad of issues.

  15. sefryak

     /  March 4, 2015

    With the scrums, the easiest solution to combat collapses would be a sequential engagement. It would remove the hit, allow props to bind more effectively, meaning the ref can pay more attention to things like proper, straight feeds and actually illegal scrummaging.
    Stopping the clock at set pieces, scrums and line outs, would a positive introduction. The ball would then be in play longer and it would require more from the players aerobically, potentially allowing for more line breaks etc.
    For rucking, they could go back to the law stating no hands allowed in the ruck period, meaning teams would have clearly win possession by clearing out and driving over the ball.
    I agree with a lot of the criticism directed at the reffing of mauls currently. Refs don’t pay enough attention to how players join the ruck and how the ball carriers is bound on. Perhaps mandating that the player in possession must be at the head of a maul would make it fairer and more of a contest? I think that the sequence around the choke tackle becoming a maul should be looked at. Once the ref has called the maul formed, players should be required to enter from the correct side. The defensive team should also be called for deliberate collapsing, it’s pretty obvious that teams do this, because as soon as it is declared a maul it immediately hits the dirt. If it is a penalty to do that in one scenario, it should be consistent for all.

  16. Roundy

     /  March 5, 2015

    How about we improve the method that Referees (and linesmen) use to decide foul play. Most games have TMO’s, most could have aerial cameras also. Use the technology more. e.g. aerial cam at scrum time gives a clearer view of which prop is turning in. That along with a straight bind and a straight feed. TMO could call it to the ref. Linesmen could / should call any offsides (players ahead of the hindmost foot). Again the TMO could remind them. If people want fewer players on the pitch go watch League or Sevens. You want the scrum downgraded go do the same. Proper policing of existing laws will result in a better all round Rugby Union experience.

  17. Dave

     /  March 5, 2015

    When I was watching the game at the weekend I found myself screaming at the TV about several different offences that were not picked up by the Ref or the Assistants. is there anything to be said for a) moving the offside line from hindmost foot to 2m behind hindmost foot? b)Utilising the TMO in an armchair referee mode where he can communicate with the other officials in real time. The arguments against point b will probably be along the lines of “oh there will be too many stoppages” but give players half a season and they will realise that they cannot infringe as blatantly as before.

    • Dave

       /  March 5, 2015

      @roundy, we must have been posting at the same time!!!

    • Yossarian

       /  March 5, 2015

      if you moved the offside line too far back from the ruck teams would just pick and go even more!easy yards with zero risk. if the hindmost foot was enforced it would probably be grand. John Hayes spent his career acting as pillar a meter up and refs took it as the mark!

      • Allowing scrum halves to dummy again might be a self policing method for the offside line rather than having to be stricter by law. The blitz defences are dictating the current tactics, not the attack coaches who are just finding the most effective way to attack.

        Article isn’t about Ireland but I do think if/when an opposing defence stacks the backfield more against Ireland then sexton will loop, Henshaw will carry hard, Payne will playmake, Kearney will get against the grain passes beside the ruck and zebo/bowe will trail run infield. Ireland’s excellent rucking is saving their relatively poor yards at contact as it is. Why ask for more carries when defences are set up to stop almost solely that? All the teams should be asking that question of themselves, not just Schmidt.

  18. Wanderes

     /  March 5, 2015

    leave it this way!

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