Ever feel slightly out of your depth when rugby talk gets serious?

Well fear not, more learned experts than you are confused by the law tweaks to the tackle, the scum and the problems of offside and obstruction. We asked Donal Lenihan to explain it all.

LET’S get one thing clear from the outset. Despite suggestions to the contrary, there are no new law changes this season. What we do have is either a new interpretation of, or an increased emphasis on, specific laws that are already in place.

The reason for this is that after the period of exploration with the multiple Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) 18 months ago, it was decided that there would be no new laws introduced until after the 2011 World Cup.

In order to comply with that dictat, the IRB have instead decided to tweak the law as it stands in order to, among other things, create more space and encourage teams to run. The result, primarily in the southern hemisphere so far, is a more fluid game.

The key areas under focus at present are as follows: The Tackle, Offside in open play, Obstruction and the Scrum.

The Tackle

LAW 15: A tackle occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and is brought to ground; A ball carrier who is not held is not a tackled player and a tackle has not taken place;

Opposition players who hold the ball carrier and bring that player to ground, and who also go to ground, are known as tacklers; Opposition players who hold the ball carrier and do not go to ground are not tacklers.

LAW 15 covers the Tackle. A tackle is deemed to occur when a ball carrier is brought to ground. It is a highly complex area. The key change introduced at the outset of the Super 14 season in the southern hemisphere (but mid-stream during last season’s Six Nations) was an increased emphasis on Law 15.6.c which states: “Players in opposition to the ball carrier who remain on their feet who bring the ball carrier to ground so that the player is tackled, must release the ball and the ball carrier. Those players may then play the ball provided they are on their feet and do so from behind the ball and from directly behind the tackled player or a tackler closest to those player’s goal line.”

This effects four principal categories of player: (a) the tackled player (b) the tackler (c) the arriving players and (d) the player who singularly or with the assistance of the tackler or another player, contributes in putting the ball carrier to ground but crucially is not deemed a tackler as he has not gone to ground himself. That’s the complicated bit.

A change in emphasis – whereby the defending team as opposed to the side in possession – becomes the first point of attention for the referee, has changed the dynamic of the game from what was happening post-ELVs. It gives the advantage to the team in possession and reduces the opportunity for a turnover. The tackler is now required to show daylight, either by spreading or even clapping his hands, between him and the tackled player. This can be difficult for the referee to observe in real time.

Issues around the tackled player and the tackler are reasonably straightforward. It is the role played by the arriving players that make it difficult for the spectator to follow at times. Despite the advantage now accruing to the ball carrier, the likes of Richie McCaw and Australia’s David Pocock still managed to generate multiple turnovers during the summer by playing clever. As the first player in support of the tackler they hung back for a second and did not partake in the act of bringing the ball carrier to ground. By definition they were not a tackler and were then free to contest for the ball immediately.

The key for the player who is not a tackler but arrives in the tackle area is that in order to contest for possession they must stay on their feet and do so from behind the ball and from directly behind the tackled player or a tackler closest to those player’s goalline. In rugby speak, this is known as arriving through the gate.

The ‘gate’ is an area defined by the length and width of the tackled player. Players are coached to attempt to lie parallel to the touchline in the tackle so that the gate is long and narrow thus making it more difficult for an opponent to pinch the ball. When the tackled player lies perpendicular to the touchline, the gate becomes wide and narrow making it much easier for the opposition to engineer a turnover. Another key element is that the tackler is exempt from coming through the gate. Once he has released the tackled player and got back on his feet, he can immediately contest for possession.

That brings us to category (d) above, where the player is deemed not to be a tackler, even though he played a role in bringing the opposition player to ground. Crucially, he has managed to stay on his feet. In this situation the defender must still release the player in possession despite the fact that he is not the tackler. He must then re-enter between the gate before contesting possession and thus is treated differently from a player who is deemed a tackler.

These different scenarios are what make the breakdown so difficult for referees to police as they are required to make instantaneous decisions. It is also the reason why it’s difficult to achieve consistency from referees especially from different countries. No wonder the supporter on the terrace finds it difficult to understand what is being penalised at the breakdown.

Offside in open play

IN AN effort to create more space for attacking sides and to encourage teams to run at the opposition rather than engage in that awful aerial ping pong that was commonplace in the last World Cup, the IRB is encouraging referees to police and implement the existing offside law in open play with greater vigilance.

Law 11.1 Offside in general play: A player who is in an offside position is liable to sanction only if he does one of three things:

1 Interferes with play;

2 Moves forward, towards the ball or;

3 Fails to comply with the 10 Metre Law (Law 11.4).

To complicate matters further, Law 11.4 has seven additional sub-paragraphs (a) to (g). The Ten Metre Law is best summarised by paragraph (a) “When a team-mate of an offside player has kicked ahead, the offside player is considered to be taking part in the game if the player is in front of an imaginary line across the field which is 10m from the opponent waiting to play the ball, or from where the ball lands, or may land. The offside player must immediately move behind the imaginary 10 metre line, or the kicker if this is closer than 10 metres. While moving away, the player must not obstruct an opponent”.

In layman’s terms if you are ahead of the kicker and within 10 metres of the catcher, you must immediately retreat outside the 10 metre zone. However of equal significance and the reason why sides, typically the All Blacks, are now counter-attacking off long kicks is that players between the kicker and the 10-metre zone must stand in the position they are in until put onside by either the kicker or a chaser coming from behind the kicker. This means that teams cannot advance in a well choreographed defensive line closing the opposition space. As that line is now fractured, opponents are encouraged to run, especially where mismatches exist, where nifty backs can run and expose isolated front five forwards (see explanatory graphic).

The net result is that in the Tri-Nations series, the incidence of kicking was reduced dramatically.

Obstruction

REFEREES have been asked to be more vigilant in policing obstruction at the maul. This has meant more penalties at lineout and at restarts.

Law 10.1.c. Blocking the tackler: “A player must not intentionally move or stand in a position that prevents an opponent from playing the ball.”

Munster are just one of a number of teams who have perfected the driving maul off a lineout platform over the years. Typically when the ball is won an arrowhead forms around the catcher, the ball is slipped to the back of the maul and the forwards drive in a scrum formation.

The key area under focus is the initial set-up where the two lifters position themselves between the lineout catcher and the opposition forwards. Referees will now penalise that immediately as it prevents the opponent from playing the ball. At best the supporting players can only be parallel with the player in possession. This has also become prevalent at restarts when the receiver is protected on the ground with lifters in front of him. Watch out for this over the coming weeks.

The Scrum

THIS area along with the breakdown is the most difficult for referees to police and privately many officials will confess that they don’t have a clue what goes on in the demi monde of the front row. In so many games last season, the scrum was a mess. The difficulties reached crisis point in the Six Nations clash between Scotland and England at Murrayfield.

The problems arise when there are so many collapses and subsequent resets at engagement. Let’s examine what the law states.

Law 20.1 (g) Scrum Engagement Sequence: “The referee will call ‘crouch’ then ‘touch’. The front rows crouch and using their outside arm each prop touches the point of the opposing prop’s outside shoulder. The props then withdraw their arms. The referee will then call ‘pause’. Following a pause the referee will then call ‘engage’. The front rows may then engage. The ‘engage’ call is not a command but an indication that the front rows may come together when ready.”

While there has been no change in law this season it has been found that by slowing down the sequence of Crouch-Touch-Pause-Engage, there have either less resets or teams are being penalised for moving before the engage call. In some respects the law makers prefer this outcome than the sight of collapsed scrums. After all, the four-word sequence was introduced some years ago for safety reasons and to close the gaps between two gigantic sets of forwards and reduce the pressure on props on engagement. If anything there were even more resets with Australia in particular adept at collapsing in order to camouflage their weakness in this sector. After several resets the referee was under pressure to complete the sequence even when not technically correct.

What the law-makers must realise is that the longer the sequence of the four-word call, the harder it is for the props to resist the power and weight of his second row who is coiled and ready to launch him into the scrum. However anything that reduces the requirement for resetting the scrum is welcome. There are fewer scrums in a game than ever before and therefore the law makers are duty bound to get it right. It is an integral part of rugby and despite the reduced frequency is back to being a very influential part of the game, as Munster and Leinster found to their cost in their respective Heineken Cup semi-finals last May.

Persistent infringers will be penalised more heavily with a free kick turning to a full penalty and ultimately a yellow card. To be fair to referees it is a difficult area to police. On examination I realised for the first time that Law 20 relating to the scrum has 13 paragraphs and an incredible 69 sub-paragraphs.

One of those sub-paragraphs namely 20.6 (d) refers to the scrum feed – a bugbear of many. It states “The scrum half must throw the ball straight along the middle line, so that it first touches the ground immediately beyond the width of the nearer props’ shoulders.” In practice, hookers are striking less for the ball as the scrum half delivers it between the legs of his loose head into the second row channel akin to rugby league. It has become a farce and refs are now coming down heavily on this, penalising it with a free kick.

******

Under the tackle rules the advantage falls in favour of the ball carrier, however, such is the calibre of New Zealand skipper Richie McCaw that he continues to wreak havoc by hanging back – for just a second – as the tackler’s support player thereby allowing him to contest for the ball. The current IRB Player of the Year continues to generate numerous turnovers.

Refs are paying particular attention to lifters in the line-out positioning themselves in front of the jumper. This prevents the opponent contesting fairly for the ball and enables the team in possession to form an arrowhead and rolling maul.

The scrum is becoming increasingly difficult for referees, forwards and spectators. The sequence, crouch/pause/touch/engage, was adopted to reduce the chances of serious injury to front-row forwards, but inconsistencies in the timing of the sequence leads to more collapses, penalties and frustration.


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