ELVs remain a contentious issue for IRB
John Taylor
April 15, 2008

"The northern hemisphere is waking up to the implications of the new ELVs and, and if you believe the reports, the IRB is masterminding a campaign to force their introduction in Europe." John Taylor writes

Suddenly, the northern hemisphere is waking up to the implications of the new Experimental Law Variations and, if you believe the Sunday Times, the IRB is masterminding a campaign to force their introduction in all European competitions for a 12 month period from the start of next season despite grave misgivings from the various stakeholders.

'Not so,' says the IRB's Steve Griffiths. 'The matter was raised from the floor at our recent meeting and it was the French who suggested that they needed at least two years before the next World Cup.'

The inference was that they should be trialled sooner rather than later or Europe was going to be at a serious disadvantage if and when they are introduced.

The IRB is carefully monitoring every trial and their statistical analysts are constantly updating and refining their results.

They insist no decisions have been taken and that this is not merely a PR exercise leading to a rubber stamping of the recommendations of the Laws Project Group - the working party responsible for the ELVs.

The almost hysterical opposition from those who see themselves as custodians of the principles of Rugby Union is based on the thesis that this is an Australian inspired plot to make the game more attractive as a spectacle even if that means stopping the contest for the ball at scrum, line-out and breakdown.

They fear a homogenised player type and a game that is indistinguishable from Rugby League.

The IRB point out that all the changes obey the charter for the game which says contests for the ball at scrum and line-out are sacrosanct as is the principle that it is a game for players of all shapes and sizes.

The real raison d'etre behind the ELVs is to simplify some of the laws and make the referee less of a dominant figure. Some of them have not worked as far as I am concerned (that's why they are experimental) but anything designed to shut-up the referee is worth a try.

Referees no longer just arbitrate - they manage the game and if you haven't got a loud voice you just cannot referee effectively which is crazy. They spend most of their time bellowing instructions to the players - they are more like coaches.

Even when they are making decisions based on law far too much is left to their interpretation. Matches are too often decided by penalties awarded in error for offences that do not merit a kick at goal in the first place.

Take this true story from the 2003 World Cup Final. Referee Andre Watson briefed the forwards from each side before the game, stressing that he did not want such an important match decided by front-row offences.

'If I give a penalty at the scrum you can put your mortgage for your house on the fact I had no choice - 100% it will be a penalty,' he said.

He then proceeded to penalise the England front-row at every crucial scrum despite it being obvious that Australia were completely out-muscled and just could not cope.

Finally, as he got up from the deck to discover England had been blamed yet again for the collapse that resulted in Elton Flatley levelling the scores just before full-time, England hooker, Steve Thompson, cracked. 'Ref,' he said. 'Your house must be a s***hole.'

In contrast, Alain Rolland soon sussed that Australia were under the cosh in the 2007 quarter-final and England were able to use their demonstrable superiority up front to secure victory.

In Watson's case (although he still refuses to admit it) it was a clear case of the referee getting it wrong and almost causing a travesty of justice.

Matches should not be decided by scrum offences unless they are so persistent they constitute foul play. A scrum is a contest for possession. If you offend you forfeit possession by conceding a free-kick.

You do not deserve to concede three points until it becomes obvious you are preventing the opposition from taking full advantage of their superiority in this department by deliberately collapsing, going-up or illegally wheeling - and the dominant scrum has every opportunity to demonstrate that superiority because they can opt for another scrum instead of the free-kick. That ELV makes perfect sense.

Twenty years ago Welsh referee, Clive Norling, pointed out it was possible to award penalties for at least 20 offences at every lineout. He maintained every one of them was preceded by closing the gap which only merited a free-kick and refereed accordingly.

That precipitated a change in the laws reducing lineout penalties enormously. This is merely doing the same at the scrum.

Super 14 rugby is so fast and loose it is difficult to make a true assessment of the laws but, significantly, teams like the Crusaders with a really strong scrum have still been able to use it to good effect.

Rugby has had more law changes over the past 50 years than almost any other sport and it will continue to evolve despite the Luddites. We cannot really evaluate these proposals until we have seen them in action in the northern hemisphere so it is time to bite the bullet and try them out.

+ Click here full details of the ELVs being investigated by the IRB

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