Who is running rugby in England?
April 7, 2010
Premier Rugby chief Mark McCafferty has moved to protect the integrity of the Guinness Premiership © Getty Images
Who is actually running rugby in England? That surely has to be the question after the revelation last week that Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, summoned the Rugby Football Union to a 'summit meeting' and effectively changed the laws.
It appears to have caused remarkably little controversy but it is a massive step when a man whose expertise is building brands such as Midland Bank, Thomas Cook and Avis is suddenly empowered to change the way rugby is played.
'We couldn't let things go on as they were,' he said. 'We needed to do something to improve the quality of rugby, to deliver a greater level of ambition from the attacking side……we simply couldn't have the Premiership churning out the sort of rugby that was receiving such a poor commentary.'
Fine - by all means call an emergency meeting of your member clubs and get them to agree to a more positive approach but to demand a change in the way matches are refereed in the Guinness Premiership - and the new rulings apply only to that competition - takes us into dangerous new territory.
The statistic that set McCafferty's alarm bells ringing was a 38% drop in the try scoring rate from last season - down from 3.84 per game to 2.77 - and in what he called 'a seminal moment in relations between the two bodies' he persuaded the RFU to sanction four changes in the way referees control the breakdown at a meeting on February 24.
As I understand it the International Rugby Board were not consulted but the new measures took effect in the matches played on the last weekend in March.
Referees were instructed to:
The effect was immediate. Referees were so quick to penalise defenders they scarcely dared hold the man in the tackle and in a number of instances he was allowed to regain his feet and go again so now the players are not only afraid to complete the tackle but will not compete for possession at all in their own half.
It certainly produces quicker ball but undermines defence and it represents a complete turn around from the situation a couple of years ago when the IRB were so worried about the lack of a contest for the ball at the breakdown they sought to give the defending side a better chance of turning over possession.
McCafferty appears to blame the ELVs - 'two years ago the game was in pretty good shape and then we had all the experimental law variations' - and the silence from the IRB shows just how bad an experience that was for them. In 2004 they agreed to conduct a review of the whole game with luminaries such as Pierre Villepreux, Rod Macqueen and Ian McIntosh coming together under the auspices of the Laws Project Group.
Five years later their deliberations became law but were roundly condemned by most of the rugby community and many of their recommendations were hurriedly reversed. There is now obviously no appetite at all for anyone to stick their head above the parapet and recommend law changes so the marketing men have seized the opportunity and are tweaking the existing regulations to suit themselves. It is a short cut to chaos and the Laws Committee needs to reassert its authority.
There are definitely problems at the breakdown but just allowing the tackled player an extra second to release the ball would solve most of them. At the moment referees are all inconsistent. If there is a defender/tackler on his feet they allow no time at all for the tackled player to place the ball as the law states. If there is nobody competing they allow him to hold on for as long as he wishes.
Every player will tell you that consistency is the single most important thing for them and there is usually an attempt to make sure there are uniform interpretations throughout a tournament. Not so during this Six Nations. During the first four rounds of matches referees were quite 'laissez faire' at the breakdown and appeared almost reluctant to penalise unless there was blatant holding on or killing the ball.
Then suddenly, on that final weekend it all changed. All three referees were noticeably whistle happy - quick ball had been ordered from on high and they had to deliver. I just hope the order came from IRB referees manager Paddy O'Brien. We all want a fast open game but the IRB is the only body that should be allowed to tinker with the laws.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to ESPNscrum.com