World Rugby’s decision to change the scoring law to exclude grounding the ball against the goal post or its surrounding padding was a welcome development.
Not only did it remove an obviously unfair situation – how were the defending side, who were required to remain behind their goal line supposed to defend against an opponent grounding the ball against a cushion that extends half a metre infield – it also shows that the lawmakers are concerned with making rugby a fair contest all the time after all.
That it took so long for them to do so is a different issue of course. Coaches and players have been complaining about it for years and the wily ones have come up with a plan – lift the post protector up off the ground, so a try can’t be scored. It was only after initially saying doing that could result in a penalty try that they decided to stop the madness and change the law.
I’m wondering if this time of hiatus isn’t an opportunity to look at some other situations that are just unfair, and to do something about them.
I’ve got some suggestions to start with.
An inordinate number of penalties being awarded involve a tackled player with an opponent standing over him. The man on the ground is penalised for not releasing the ball when everyone in the world can see he has absolutely no chance of doing so.
The interpretation is that as long as the man on his feet is supporting his own body weight (which he almost never actually is) and as long as he visibly releases the tackled player for an instant, he can latch onto the ball and unless he is “cleaned” away (more of that later) he is virtually guaranteed a penalty.
The call is “holding” or “not releasing” made against the guy on the ground when the holder is actually the guy on his feet. And boy does he ever not release! The commentators are particularly effusive in their praise for those players who get their hands in there and cannot be budged.
The wrong player is being penalised, World Rugby! And you don’t even have to change the law, the current one tells us what should happen.
Law 14: Tackle, under Player Responsibilities says quite clearly:
5. Immediately release the ball and the ball-carrier after both players go to ground.
c. Allow the tackled player to release or play the ball.
d. Allow the tackled player to move away from the ball
Those breakdown heroes are actually villains and they are getting rewarded for it.
This is a quaint way of describing the way in which opponents are forcibly removed when they are attempting to go for the ball, usually at a ruck.
One of the timeless principles of the game, surely, is that you cannot play a man who does not have the ball. The term “playing the man not the ball” has become an English idiom describing the worst sort of conduct in competition, yet it’s allowed in rugby these days, and called cleaning – for goodness sake!
I’ve been scouring the Law Book trying to find out how it’s justified and I can’t.
It’s clear in Law 9: Foul Play that it’s illegal. Under Dangerous play it says:
14 A player must not tackle an opponent who is not in possession of the ball.
The next point does say:
15. Except in a scrum, ruck or maul, a player who is not in possession of the ball must not hold, push, charge or obstruct an opponent not in possession of the ball
But go to the laws covering scrums, ruck and mauls and you’ll see that binding plays a big role. You have to bind on an opponent in all those phases. Then you can remove him, I guess. Nowhere does it say that you can charge in and dive opponents out the way.
The referees do penalise certain types of dangerous cleaning out, and it has to be done in close proximity to the ball. That tells me they know it’s wrong. Why not write a new law clarifying all of this and get back to the old-fashioned traditions and virtues that the Playing Charter in the law book refers to.
The Driving Maul
This one I’m sure they are going to change soon. It’s so patently wrong that they don’t have a choice.
Look at Law 9: Foul Play’s first section: Obstruction and you’ll see that there is nothing about a maul off a lineout that is actually legal.
Here’s what the Law Book says about obstruction:
3. A player must not intentionally prevent an opponent from tackling or attempting to tackle the ball-carrier.
4 A player must not intentionally prevent an opponent from having the opportunity to play the ball, other than by competing for possession.
Go to Law 17: Maul, and you’ll see it says:
The purpose of a maul is to allow players to compete for the ball, which is held off the ground.
It was a clever coach somewhere that turned the maul into a try-scoring technique and it’s become acceptable. Put a stop to it, World Rugby. The defenders are the ones getting penalised, trying to defend the indefensible, how is that fair?
Besides, it’s boring!
You can download the latest Law Book at: