Bold new law changes loom on the horizon
John Taylor
November 8, 2007

"Remember the time when you barely heard the referee during a rugby match, when there was space in midfield, tries galore and games were rarely decided by penalties?" John Taylor reports

No? You're absolutely right - Rugby Utopia never really existed despite those rose coloured spectacles - but there will be a significant attempt to move the game in that direction if the bold new changes proposed by the IRB working party become law in 2008.

In layman's terms they are:-

1. At scrums all players bar the scrum-halves must be 5 metres behind the hindmost foot.

2 Players may handle in the ruck provided they have entered through the gate and are on their feet.

3. You can collapse a maul by dragging it down.

4. If you collect or carry the ball outside the 22 you cannot pass back to a player inside the 22 so that he can kick direct to touch.

5. Full penalties will only be awarded for offside and foul play - which includes deliberate and persistent infringement.

6. A try is scored even if the player collides with the corner flag provided he is not in touch or touch in goal.

They have been trialled extensively at Stellenbosch University, in Australia and Scotland at junior level and the results have been so encouraging that they could be used for the Super 14 tournament starting in February.

Australia and South Africa are apparently all for it but New Zealand favour a partial introduction with no handling in the ruck or dragging down the maul at this stage.

If the changes are adopted they will then go before the full IRB Council at the beginning of May and could become law by July 1st which would mean they would first be seen at international level in the Tri Nations although there might be a dispensation to use them on the tours that will precede that tournament as it makes no sense to be playing under two separate sets of laws in the same season.

So will they have the desired effect? The authors - Paddy O'Brien, the IRB's Referees Manager, plus four former national coaches, Rod MacQueen (Australia), Ian MacIntosh (South Africa), Pierre Villepreux (France) and Richie Dixon (Scotland) certainly think so.

Villepreux, who has long been respected as one of the most forward thinking coaches, says it is a question of giving the players more options.

'We have to return the game to the players,' he says. 'We want a game that is still very recognisable as Rugby Union with room for players of different shapes and sizes, with a big contest for the ball (unlike League) but then players should be able to run with the ball and have greater liberty.

'Where the referee is concerned there should be fewer subjective decisions. It is crazy that the referee never stops talking at the moment - he is like a coach or a manager.'

Games under the experimental variations have so far produced significantly more tries, fewer penalties and the ball in play for longer periods.

'There is not necessarily less kicking,' says Villepreux. 'But there is a much greater variety and the teams which have confidence in their handling have much more space to experiment and express themselves.'

He thinks one of the reasons for the increase in the number of tries is because sides have not yet learned how to defend as well as they will but is convinced you will not get matches like the World Cup Final where game plans were so rigid and defences so much in control there was no room for flair.

One of the worries was that there would be a spate of spinal injuries caused by being allowed to collapse the maul but every match has been carefully monitored and there have been no problems and a very intense contest for the ball.

The biggest criticism of the present law is that it is just impossible to stop a maul if it is well formed and the opposition has no choice other than to concede a penalty so that negative teams set-out with that in mind.

Those who are against change argue that that sort of physical confrontation is what defines Union from League. Nonsense! With the ball tucked away three rows back there is absolutely no contest for possession.

For me that contest is one of the key distinguishing features between the codes - something we must never sacrifice in the quest for a more open game.

I just cannot wait to see a game under the new laws (or Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) to give them their correct title at this stage).

Anything that rids us of the referee determining the result instead of the players has to be a good thing so I'm all for the reduction in penalties and it will be truly wonderful if we can break away from that constant 'hands-off green/white/red/blue - it's a ruck' (when the half the time it isn't) which a referee currently has to scream at least 30 times a game.

The ability to shout is now compulsory if you want to referee and I'm sure they are also looking forward to the time when they can leave the field without a sore throat and no voice.

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