- Oct 16, 2019
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Some interesting ideas from The Telegraph
Ten simple and effective law changes that should be made to rugby refereeing
Charles Richardson of The Telegraph; 12:00, Nov 14 2023
1. Stop coaching
This might be the toughest, given how ingrained it has become, but it is also, paradoxically, one of the easiest. Referees need to communicate less. If a player is offside from chasing a kick, don't tell them to get back, penalise them! If a player is offside at a ruck, don't tell them to retreat, penalise them! If a player is deemed as off their feet at a ruck and continues to contest for the ball, don't tell them, penalise them! They will not do it again. Discipline would improve tenfold, with players not willing to take the risk, keen to push the laws to the absolute limit – and beyond.
The auxiliary benefit, too, would be that non-English-speaking teams would benefit, given they are palpably hampered every time they take the field with an English-speaking referee. Referees should speak with their whistle and little else.
2. Reduce TMO involvement
With the insidious increase in the power of the television match official, season on season, how long will it be before artificial intelligence is refereeing rugby matches? The TMO has been allowed to increase its remit for years, to a fault. There was the near-farcical situation at Gloucester on Friday night, when Bath captain Ben Spencer was sin-binned for a cynical offside on his own line but, because the infringement came in a try-scoring opportunity, the TMO was glancing at a potential Gloucester knock-on a few phases earlier. Had the spill been deemed as a knock-on, what would have happened to Spencer, who was yellow-carded for a non-dangerous act of foul play that occurred in a sort of vacuum period of the game which shouldn't even have taken place? It would not have been the first instance in the past few years where rugby and the Hollywood blockbuster Inception had crossed paths.
The TMO's remit should encompass try-scoring placements and severe acts of foul play only. That's it. No slow-motion replays of forward passes – more on that later – and knock-ons, no slo-mo footage of ambiguous double movements. And the bunker, while positive at a surface level, ended up causing more problems than it solved at the World Cup. It was a bit like taking paracetamol for tonsilitis; sure, it might improve the symptoms for four hours, but the infection will still require medical attention. A cure.
3. Turn all scrum penalties into free-kicks
This does not require much explanation. Too many games are decided on arbitrary scrum calls. The scrum is a way to restart the game. It is a fierce battleground, of course – and must remain as such – but teams scrummaging for penalties as a way of winning matches should not be allowed to continue.
Rightly or wrongly, the fact is that the narrative around scrums has become too negative for some time – as Rob Baxter highlighted last week. Removing the risk of conceding a match-deciding penalty could result in more completed scrums, fewer resets, and greater competition for the ball. One leading analyst who spoke to Telegraph Sport said they would go even further, changing all infringements – except dangerous, cynical or repeat offences – to free-kicks. Too revolutionary for now, perhaps, but certainly worth monitoring.
4. Tidy up maul laws
This really only applies at line-outs – which is bonkers in itself, given a set-piece maul, in rugby's laws, has no separate code – but mauls in this area are beyond messy. Players being instructed to "not change their bind" by the referee; an action which involves their arms only, and allows them to do whatever they like with their bodies, except "swimming", where a player slides up the side of a maul illegally.
Most farcical, however, is that if opposing players end up on the attacking side of the maul "legally", with the ball available, when the scrum-half attempts to play the ball they are "legally" entitled to dart straight for him or stick out hands and feet to disrupt him, because they are part of the maul and, therefore, the offside law of hindmost foot does not apply to them. Madness.
5. Enforce – and tighten – the ruck 'use it' countdown
The easiest tweak of this list? Referees could be stricter with enforcing the 'use it' law, whereby a team must play the ball five seconds after the referee has deemed it available. As it stands, this often leads to the dreaded 'caterpillar ruck' – which would be tough to define, and therefore ban, in itself – so enforcing this law would disrupt its formation. Only a positive. Could the limit be lowered to three seconds, too? Or, perhaps, once the referee has called 'use it', the ball is automatically out after five seconds, rather than a resulting scrum?
6. Goal-line drop-outs should be for held-up only (at best)
A goal-line drop-out for the ball being held up over the line is more acceptable – if only slightly – but rewarding a team for kicking the ball into in-goal encourages a negative mindset – and more kicking. Also, kicking the ball with enough power to reach the goal-line but not enough to roll dead has become a skill in itself in the sport – which is a troubling avenue for rugby to go down. If the goal-line drop-out has to remain, then it should be for held-up, try-scoring opportunities only. If a team kicks the ball over the try line and the opposition touch it down, then it should revert back to a 22-metre drop-out.
7. Solve disparity in card severity
This is simple. No one disputes that Sam Cane's tackle in the World Cup final was more severe than Siya Kolisi's. But was the former's really that much more severe than the latter's to result in a punishment that was so much harsher? Cane off the field for the whole match; Kolisi for 10 minutes – and millimetres, split-seconds decided it.
Cane absolutely deserved a harsher sentence – which, along with his subsequent citing and three-match ban – he received, but did New Zealand deserve to play the rest of the match with 14 while the eventual champion Springboks were forced to do so for just 10 minutes? Absolutely not. Of course, punishments need to be staggered to mirror degrees of severity but right now rugby has either life sentences or nights in the cells. It cannot continue. A 20-minute orange card for head contact could be the answer.
8. Reward jackalling that is only clearly and obviously legal
Easier said than done with the whistle in hand, but certainly an easy directive to enforce at boardroom level. Banning the jackal in its entirety might be the answer – a philosophical shift to rugby's engineering would require more research – as like so many facets of the sport, the defensive side gains too much of an advantage. As Telegraph Sport revealed in the World Cup, some referees at rugby's showpiece were favouring the defensive side as often as 70 per cent of the time in terms of breakdown penalties. That is not the fault of the officials, who deserve sympathy in this area. There are often millimetres between a legal and illegal jackal, and the only way to discern the difference accurately and regularly is by getting on your hands and knees and using a magnifying glass.
As it stands, players take advantage of this, knowing that they might get away with an illegal jackal and that, in any case, it is worth the risk. Referees give the benefit of doubt to the defender too often. Unless a jackaller is clearly and obviously legal – with absolutely no floor contact and no knee resting on the ball-carrier – then they should not be rewarded with a holding-on penalty. And, as highlighted in entry No 1, if they are not supporting their own body weight, then they should be penalised immediately – not afforded a warning by a loquacious referee.
9. Prohibit dummying at scrums and rucks – already in law
This is already enshrined in rugby's laws, yet scrum-halves get away with murder in this area, dummying mainly box-kicks but also passes from rucks, scrums and mauls. It is yet another example of the kicker being king. Prohibit the dummying and allow more pressure on the clearance.
10. Abolish the nonsensical 'direction of hands' forward-pass law
No one knows what a forward pass is any more. If anyone even dares to contest that they do, they are either a wizard or a liar. Passes which look blatantly forward are cleared owing to the direction of the attacker's hands, while passes which often look marginal are analysed to within an inch of their life. There is probably a television angle to prove that most flat-looking passes in a match travel either forwards or backwards, such is the trickery of the camera. Rugby must return – without the TMO's input – to a more anecdotal approach to forward passes. If it looks forward, it is. If it doesn't, it is not.