The Ref Zone
A positive step
Rowly Williams,
May 21, 2012
Saracens and Harlequins pack down for a scrum, Harlequins v Saracens, Aviva Premiership, Twickenham, London, England, December 27, 2011
Will the IRB's latest trial return the scrum to a central role in the game and improve it as a spectacle? © Getty Images

So the much talked about changes to improve some aspects of the game and speed up, or at least prevent, the 'stationary' ruck have been announced.

After exhaustive tests via the learned folk at Stellenbosch and Cambridge Universities, next season will see the start of five global law amendment trials, three additional trials and one recommendation to the scrum group. In old money, some Experimental Law Variations or ELV's. So, will it do what it says on the tin?

I'm just going to look at a couple of headline-grabbers here, the rest you can digest over the close season.

The first is Law 16.7 which is worded as an 'Unsuccessful end to a ruck', or as many would see it currently, an 'Unsatisfactory end to a ruck', as yet another player joins the ever-lengthening train of players and the scrum-half plays meerkat to the referee's David Attenborough.

The trial law will be seen as giving teeth to sub-section (b) - sub-sections may not be sexy but often this is where the detail is. This part of the law states the 'referee must allow a reasonable time for the ball to emerge….if the referee decides that the ball will probably not emerge within a reasonable time a scrum is ordered'.

Now for the first time that 'reasonable time' has a name and thy name is five seconds. However, referees have already pointed out to us that one referee's five seconds is another's four or a drawn out six - you get the picture. Many have said that once the ball appears (emerged legally) and there is a player there to play the ball, that player should do so with the words of 'use it or lose it' ringing in his/her ears.

Let's not forget these are trial laws and there is room for further thought and discussion. The point is it is a positive and encouraging move to prevent players legally slowing the game down to ludicrous degrees at the breakdown. I have no doubt though as I write, that players and coaches are planning a counter by thinking, 'Yep, but if we do this…..' I like that though. The game has always been tested by players and coaches alike with interpretations of the laws, and some excellent law changes have come about because of it.

I do like the 90 second limit from when a try is scored for the conversion to be kicked. Thus preventing too much of this scenario: Try scored, conversion awaits… "Much longer left to half time/full time Sir?" Gets the answer..."Good advantage you played there sir, especially as they came in at the side again" (or other some such conversation - well played the team psychologist who's advocated getting into the referee's head at every opportunity), referee gives knowing smile as he's done TheRefZone mental skills training to counter that.

"There is some long, hard thinking to be done on this and the referees must apply themselves judiciously before asking any questions."

Tee comes on, kicker takes slurp of branded energy drink and returns drink to assistant water carrier/tee provider. "Mark just here sir"? (superfluous question as it's where the referee has been in-line with for the last minute or so), kicker lines up with posts, places tee, replaces tee, places ball on tee, goes through pre-kick routine, and depending on which premiership kicker and what routine you are watching you then wait anything from 28 seconds to (and I'll be kind to some here) 59.8 seconds. Total time? Well, a lot more than the new 90 second maximum that's for sure.

The other two 'biggies' are Television Match Official (TMO) interventions and (listed as a stand-alone amendment which will be considered by the scrum steering group, so may or may not come in - but it will), those change of timing and language at the scrum.

Scrum first then. 'Crouch. Touch. Set'. This replaces what many saw as the unnecessary and unloved four-stage process of, 'Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage'. As one old hooker commented to me late last night on seeing the proposal: 'What? So a bit like years ago when I used to call to the scrum-half 'ready, ready, now' and he'd put it in on my 'NOW'? Sort of, but I took his point. Anything which encourages the front rows to stay up, bind correctly and take less than the current average of 56 seconds for a scrum at Tier 1 level has to be trialled. Tier 2 (average 26 seconds and two and a half times less likelihood of a scrum collapse) and the club level forwards may wonder what all the fuss is about, after all, they've been fine as they are.

Now for the Television Match Official tweak that will obviously only apply to top-end rugby where TMO's are employed. This allows for an intervention by the TMO to flag up 'incidents' and foul play in the field of play to the match referee in the lead up to a try. Incident is not defined, foul play is self-explanatory.

The first thing to notice is that there isn't any protocol attached to the amendment but states one will emerge. It may well be based on where the referee asks for the TMO's intervention, just as now with the in-goal try questions.

There is some long, hard thinking to be done on this and the referees must apply themselves judiciously before asking any questions. Why so? Think back to Chris Ashton's try against Australia at Twickenham 2010, turn over ball, two passes and 100 metres later a try appears to have been scored. Then the referee asks the question: 'Any reason why I can't award the try?' The TMO notices a marginal forward pass back on the England try line that no-one else did. The rest I leave to your imagination.

So all in all, some really positive steps to move the game forward whilst retaining its stability. Now then, what about Laws 13.3 and 20.6 (d)? Go on have a look, you know you want to! - Referee training and development

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