The Rugby World Cup is over and it's time again when laws will be changed. Looking after the Laws of the Game is the IRB's primary and most serious responsibility.
Remember the ELVs? That was the most exhaustive changing of laws in the history of the game that started before the 2007 Rugby World Cup, was inclusive of countries, players, coaches and referees, and produced changes that became law after the 2007 World Cup. There was evidence of how seriously the IRB took responsibility for law changes.
And it was right to do so. After all if you change laws you change the game. Rugby is different from soccer because the laws are different - and so for baseball and cricket and for tiddlywinks and sumo wrestling. Look at films of ancient games and they are almost unrecognisable from the game played now - because of changes to the laws.
It's time to consider changes now and it would be interesting to see what changes are in a mind - any more fundamental than extending the powers of the TMO which has been mooted. After all by far the majority of rugby goes happily along without a TMO in the vicinity. Law changes are for the game through its whole being.
There are some obvious ones to consider, like the tackle and the scrum.
The tackle laws have been tackled over and over again. They have changed many times since they found a written place in the 1866 laws. The nature of the tackle has been defined and what happens after the tackle has happened.
The definition of the tackle is clear enough but action after the tackle is a problem.
Dr Danie Craven, who made a big contribution to the laws, used to refer to the line-out as the illegitimate child of rugby because so many things could go wrong and a referee could raise his arm for a penalty to one side or the other and nobody was any the wiser. The line-out was a lottery. Laws were changed and the line-out is now the least of rugby's problems. Its place has been taken by the tackle.
At the recent World Cup in 48 matches 938 penalties were awarded, 492 at the tackle. That means that 52% of penalties were for infringements at one phase of the game, an average of just over 10 per match. These are the top players in the world with the top referees. But it gets worse. If you take the eight knock-out matches, in which the very best play against the very best, there were 75 tackle penalties out of 123 penalties in those eight matches or 61%. And in those matches there were commentators complaining about a laissez-faire attitude at the tackle. They wanted more penalties. They wanted more penalties to ensure quicker ball rather than slow ball from a heap of consenting adults squirming like a heap of earthworms on the ground.
There are people who blame it all on the law change of 1958. In 1874 a tackle was followed by a scrum, which has an aspect of rugby league about it. That was slow. To speed things up a player was allowed to play the ball with the hand but only after first playing it with the foot. There were players adept at playing the ball with the foot and picking it up in a single, skilful movement.
Then came 1958. That year the requirement to play the ball with the foot was removed - to speed up the game. That was the death knell of the ancient art of dribbling and the opening of the door to falling on the ball, the pile-up and the squirming heap on the ground.
The tackle/ruck law tells us that if players are off their feet they are not allowed to play the ball and yet we watch the ball emerge from this squirming heap and play goes on - presumably because the ball has been able to propel itself from the heap and the referee is then happy for play to go on because there is continuity - 'flow' to many commentators. But if play on the ground produces that sort of unpunished continuity it will encourage further play on the ground - and more slow ball.
Slow ball goes into things called phases where people carrying the ball run into other people. A phase may be made up of one pass. And we enjoy counting the number of phases, even though a new phases is really just a repeat of the previous phase and the more phases there are the less the likelihood of progress because defences get organised and outnumber attackers - and so on. The ball becomes slow, the play monotonous, continuity almost a waste of time and the surprise of a turnover rugby's biggest boon.
The problem with the tackle is that the law tries to serve two masters - encourage carrying the ball and rewarding the tackler's victory. And so the law wants a fair contest - giving the ball-carrier a chance to carry out his options while stopping his players from sealing off the tackle.
Modern rugby has accentuated the problem with its repeated bashing. Mostly now the ball-carrier does not try to beat the tackler but charges into him, invites the opponent to bring him down.
Then the law has complications. It is not black and white. It seemed about to create a divide by requiring those who come to play at the tackle to come through the gate. No more side entry. But then it lets the tackler approach from any direction. But not if there is a ruck, and a ruck requires people on their feet and forbids the use of hands. But the player who got there first is allowed to use his hands and continue doing so even if a ruck forms soon afterwards. No hands - but watch how seldom the ball comes back through use of the feet. There are so many exceptions which make grey areas.
Perhaps it may help if the law were cut and dried, if what looked similar had similar treatment - and if players were required to be on their feet - in fact if the written law became the applied law. Then maybe there will be the quick ball that the game requires.
There was a priest at Blackrock College in Dublin who said: "After the grace of God, the most important thing in the world is quick ball from a ruck." How to get it requires skilful law-making.
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