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New Law Variations Experiments No More

Saturday Jul 4, 2009 in Magazine

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By Mat Brown

After more than half a decade of brainstorming, evaluation, and haphazard implementation of experimental law variations (ELVs) at the domestic and international levels of rugby, the International Rugby Board ultimately decided this May to resist fundamentally altering the character of the game. Instead they made a few common sense rule adjustments, significantly cleaned up the lineouts, and finally legalized practices that had already become commonplace.

Here is our analysis of the 10 law variations that were unanimously accepted by the IRB Council, the three that were rejected, and the one that was referred for further examination.

Law 6.B: Assistant referees are able to assist referees in any way the referee requires.
Nothing earth shattering involved in this change. It just allows the guys with flags—who used to be called touch judges—to provide more input to the whistleblower to help in decision-making and to report egregious misbehavior and suggest possible sanctions.

Law 19.1: If a team puts the ball back in their own 22 and the ball is subsequently kicked directly into touch, there is no gain in ground.
Theoretically, this alteration was supposed to keep the ball in play longer and prevent teams from endlessly playing for field position. In reality, it has resulted in fewer stoppages for lineouts, but has increased the number of strategic infield kicks to achieve the same goal of not playing the game in your own half.

Law 19.2: A quick throw may be made straight or towards the throwing team’s goal line.
This actually does speed up play and create more attacking opportunities. Referees were already pretty lenient in this area before the ELVs, and didn’t generally require precision straightness on quick throw-ins. This change just removes the burden on refs to make unnecessary (and unpopular) calls for really crooked throws while adding more flow to the contest. It also cuts down on rest breaks for the tight five!

Law 19.8(i): The receiver at the lineout must be two meters away from the lineout.
Teams are constantly thinking of ways to gain an advantage in this crucial phase of the game, so it’s no surprise they’d try to create confusion about who the receiver is by hiding him close to the lineout. This law addition simply sets a boundary and makes referees’ lives easier now that they’re going to have to be counting numbers in the lineout again.

Law 19.8(j): The player who is in opposition to the player throwing in the ball must stand in the area between the five-meter line and touch line, and must be two meters from the line of touch and at least two meters from the lineout.
Again, the intention is to further delineate positioning at the lineout and prevent teams from using the non-throwing hooker as a lifter at the front of the line.

Law 19.10(g): Lineout players may pre-grip a jumper before the ball is thrown in.
Before the ELVs came along, when was the last time anyone saw a referee make a call for illegal pre-gripping? This is one of the ELVs that certainly wasn’t experimental in nature, but was thrown in to codify a part of the game that was already being practiced on the pitch by players and referees.

Law 19.10(f): The lifting of lineout jumpers is permitted.
Really? It’s only been happening since the last century so it’s about time the IRB got around to rewriting this section of the law book. There are many other revisions of this kind that could be implemented without pretending that they’re part of some grand experiment.

Law 20.12(g): Introduction of an offside line five meters behind the hindmost feet of the scrum.
This is one of the more impactful of the approved ELVs. The idea was to open up attacking play off of scrums and anecdotally, at least, it’s working. With professional players getting stronger, faster, and quicker at a seemingly exponential rate, defenses had gained the upper hand in shutting down most back row and inside back moves. Now, however, there’s automatically 10 more meters of space between the backlines, and
that’s breeding increased aggressiveness and creativity with ball in hand. The danger here is in enforcement. If referees and their assistants are vigilant in keeping defense back, this will end up being a thoroughly positive change.

Law 20.12(d/e): Scrumhalf offside line at the scrum.
Creating offside lines at the back of the scrum necessitated some new language to control scrumhalves and clean up play at the back of the scrum. Not a huge difference maker in practical terms but again, it assists in achieving the overall goal of opening up the game from set pieces.

Law 22.12: The corner posts are no longer considered to be touch-in-goal, except when the ball is grounded against the post.
The real beneficiaries here are try scorers, Television Match Officials, and fans. There was nothing worse than seeing a fantastic try in the corner disallowed because the ball carrier had lightly grazed the anachronistic corner flag—except maybe sitting through endless replays while waiting for the TMO to determine whether the ball had been grounded before the stick had been touched.

The three ELVs that didn’t make the cut had to do with mauls and the lineout.

Law 17: Maul, pulling down the maul.
The decision to not adopt this fundamental change is vital to preserving the sport’s essential character. Mauling is a test of fitness, technique, strength and coordination.  Legally stopping a good maul is one of rugby’s most difficult tasks. Allowing mauls to be basically removed from the game as an attacking weapon would have been a travesty.

Law 17.2: Maul, head and shoulders not to be lower than hips.
This became unnecessary when pulling the maul down was rejected.

Law 19.8: Freedom for each team to determine lineout numbers.
This is a variation that sounded good in theory but didn’t exactly work out in practice.  The idea was to put an end to technical violations caused by having to match the numbers of the team throwing in at the lineout and thus speed up the game. What it actually did though was take ingenuity and strategy out of this method of restarting play. What’s the point of developing a tricky, well-practiced, four-man lineout to win possession if the defense can just put seven players out in opposition? There will likely be some whining about this law not being incorporated, but the decision to reject it is the correct one.

Perhaps the most controversial ELV—it was championed by Aussie supremo John O’Neill and wasn’t part of the global trial—was sent back to the rules committee for further examination. It involved the awarding of free kicks instead of penalties for all offenses except offside and foul play.

This alteration did indeed create some exciting moments of continuous play when it was used by SANZAR competitions, but it was fiercely opposed by the majority of the northern hemisphere countries as encouraging cynical cheating. Even though it hasn’t been dismissed forever, the tabling of this ELV is a significant victory for the more conservative powers in the game.

The long process of developing, trialling, campaigning for and eventually adopting or rejecting the ELVs was rightly seen as an attempt by certain countries (most notably Australia) to turn the game into more of an offensive spectacle. In the end, however, the rugby traditionalists won the long battle and the sport emerged from the ordeal without any permanent damage while still possessing all the elements that make it a game for players of all shapes and sizes.

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