Archive for the ‘Refereeing / Laws’ Category

I’d had been looking forward to this tournament all year, and not only because I love rugby playing women … uh, I mean coaching them … I continue to coach the female game for several reasons, and one is that without all that bulk and bullheadedness, women are more likely to look for space than try and run someone over.  For anyone who watched the whole tournament, this was again proved to be true.  There were some fantastic tries on offer, and well-worked ones too which featured clever running lines and deft handling.  When it all came down to it, the two most dominant sides – even heading into the tournament – England and New Zealand found each other again squared off in the final.  For those who hadn’t watched any WRWC matches, this might not have given them the impression I’d mentioned earlier about a free-flowing, attractive brand of open rugby, but what rugby final is ever that?

Praise be to the IRB for streaming 12 matches from their site and putting up a massive highlights package of that final:

One thing I will address is how a lot of people have been criticising the referee’s handling of the final …

I’d watched every pool match – every match, actually – up to the final, and don’t think Corrigan was inconsistent with the way the games were reffed by anyone throughout.  The tempo was set in the encounter between Australia and Wales, and really every team should have ‘adjusted’ then if not before because the directives about rolling away and releasing the tackled player have been in place for a while.  After watching that game, I watched a 3N match and it struck me how different general play looked.  From one that was relatively clean and free from penalisable infringements at the break down, to one where they were rampant and the ref could only address the ones which were most blatant while trying to be consistent.  The women’s game was the ‘cleaner’ of the two.

My impression of the final was that Corrigan gave plenty of warnings and certain players didn’t heed.  In the cases of the yellow cards, each player had done something to slow down play – which is what the IRB has been focusing on all year.  I’m just a beginning ref, so might not be the best to comment, but on review of the ‘penalty try’ that wasn’t, McLean was there so quickly to clean up the charge down that maybe only a penalty should have been called?  I’d like to hear the thinking on that one – but the rest of the match seemed pretty fair to me.

With these new directives strictly enforced, the game will open up – as the last few Tri-Nations matches have – and flow a lot better as defenders are prevented from spoiling quick ball.  Last year, players were always flopping on the wrong side of the ruck, forcing scrum halves to tip toe around them (buying time for defenders to get organised); persisting with hands in the ruck and going off their feet to the wrong side again to do so; and the whole issue with the tackler having to release before playing the ball may have cut down on some impressive turnovers, but those were hardly fair to the ball carrier who never had a chance to play the ball with someone holding/lying on top of them.  If you’ve watched any of the last few Tri-Nations matches, and remember what they were like last year, you’ll note how wide open the game has become as quick ball tends to translate into more people on their feet (i.e. less having to go in to clean up a messy ‘ruck’), and more opportunities in attack as defenders haven’t the time to get organised.

It’s a good thing.

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Sydney Morning Herald columnist Greg Growden seems to find ways of stirring rugby controversy every now and then and his latest article is true to form.  The media Down Under have reported in recent times that fans attending matches are down (while ignoring how many are watching at home and via the web in other countries – not that I’d ever do that! 😉 ), which contributed to the debacle that was the ELV trials, and his recent suggestion to make the game more attractive to the masses is to stop the clock every time the ball goes out of play.  I think the rationale is that ‘fans’ want to get their money’s worth and see an actual 80 minutes of match play.

Here’s the article.  Let’s Face It It’s Time to Stop Wasting Time – Gred Growden, SMH

I can’t bear reading it again, as it’s just one more daft idea in the quest to change a game that really doesn’t need changing.  Many in the New World do not know that rugby didn’t even go pro until the early 90s, and since then it has undergone quite a few growing pains in terms of being able to be competitive but not exceed its resources.  In a professional system, players are paid (duh), and money can entice good players to join, which can breed success, which builds a fan base, who provide more money and feed the cycle … yadda, yadda … so at least some sections of people in the ‘new’ professional rugby are concerned with making the game more ‘attractive’ to get more bums in seats, as the phrase goes.

Though I only was introduced to rugby in 1997 (and haven’t looked back at my gridiron / basketball upbringing since), I consider myself a ‘traditionalist’ who after reading the history of a game which, in its organised form, actually PRE-DATES organised soccer (despite what legends would have you believe), loves not only its spirit but also the game it evolved into by the latter part of the 20th century.  Maybe it wasn’t ‘perfect’ but every sport has such issues which are accepted as ‘part of the game.’  Time and time again over recent years people have suggested ways to make it ‘better’ – likely to get those cash-wielding aforementioned bums in seats – and they continually risk alienating those of us who think nothing’s wrong.

In fact, I would really rather NOT see more bums in seats if it means changing the sport I love to something that it’s not.  I fear this suggestion, which will thankfully be ignored, would be another step towards making rugby as boring as the other ‘football’ codes.  Growden cites AFL as an example of how the fans get to see a full period of action because the clock is stopped when the ball is out of play.  This is the same for the NFL.  One of the many things I love about watching rugby is that I can watch a professional match in an hour and a half, and then get on with my day.  For AFL and the NFL/CFL, you have to book off a solid three hours, not only dealing with stoppages in play, but commercial breaks during this period.  (I won’t rant about the audacity of the ‘TV Time Out’!)  I would be willing to bet heaps of money on this creeping into rugby – which is now relatively free of commercials – if stoppages in time were taken.  I certainly don’t want that.  That I can watch two matches in the span taken by one football game, or the pointless pre-match and match play of one soccer game, is one of the many things I love about watching rugby on Saturdays.  Double the pleasure, and not just because our sport is much more enjoyable (quadruple the pleasure?).

I’ve said it before, and I hope I won’t have to say it again now that the ELV period is over, but rugby doesn’t need any more fine tuning.  It’s pretty damn good as it is.  Recently, I was reading that despite the three hours it takes to watch an NFL match, there’s really only about 12 minutes of actual game play!  I video taped our (amateur) matches last season, stopping the recorder for moments when the ball wasn’t in play, and have edited some professional matches as such so our players could analyse them.  This reminded me that rugby, as is, contains between 35-42 minutes of action.  Compared to the NFL’s 11-12 minutes, that’s pretty damn good value for money – if that’s how the big wigs want to look at it – in my books.

How’s about everyone stop making silly suggestions to alter the best sport there is for all types of people and just let us sit back and enjoy it for what it is!

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The last post was getting a bit long, and I found these two great photos from my collection, but felt they deserved their own post as this’ll be more about technique and less about issues.

In this first picture, we have a ruck formed.  Assuming the player in white/blue with the head-gear was there first, he has full rights to continue to play the ball under the 2009 clarification.  If the two players in red/white bound on before he played the ball, he obviously should be penalised for handling the ball in the ruck.  I also want to add that the two players in red/white are in a great position to coordinate their drive power.  I never want players to pre-bind with each other as they used to teach in the old days, as it wastes time when they should just get stuck in.  But if the later to arrive can ‘latch’ onto the other, they can increase the power of the drive that’s focused on one point rather than two, if they’d rucked abreast of each other.  As for the defender, his body position is good, but he should really get his butt down to be more powerful, harder to move, and safer (i.e. not exposing his neck and back).   I tried hard to find a great picture of this, but watch any game with George Smith and David Pocock (Australia) or Richie McCaw (New Zealand) and you’ll see it at some point.

This shot was taken just a few seconds later and it appears the player who’d had his hands on the ball has been driven away (or lost his scrum cap) and this new player is indeed handling the ball in the ruck.  Looking at the clarification for 2010 for the Super 14, let’s assume the player in blue/white had arrived first and the three red/white players arrived afterward.  Since the 2009 clarification, I think there have been many such instances where this player would be allowed his right to keep contesting and eventually get the ball.  Many refs have been diligent to the specifics of the Laws  and noticed that despite technically being on his feet, he’s no longer able to support his body weight on them, and should therefore be told to leave the ball alone or be penalised for not complying.

I think this is the key area that many referees have missed, however.  Even the likes of those greats I mentioned in this post and the previous one are guilty of that.  If said player is even flat on his feet, but leaning on a pile of prone bodies, he should not be allowed to contest for the ball.  I hope Super 14 refs pick up on this, and other things ignored such as tacklers not rolling away, which should make the tackle contest cleaner and more fair, thus speeding up the game.  With this much attention to infringements at the tackle contest, and assistant referees now charged with watching for other things, the game should be allowed to be as open as traditionalists and those with a sense of rugby history want it to be.

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It seems that the never-ending debate over how to referee the tackle contest is taking a new direction for the upcoming Super 14 competition.  SANZAR, the body which governs South Africa, New Zealand, and Australian ‘Super’ rugby, has advised referees to focus more on defending players at the tackle contest for this year’s competition.  Amid several Law changes and re-definitions over the last couple of years, I think they might have finally got it right.

Older players will remember the “good old days” when ‘rucking’ was not just two opposing bodies, bound over the ball in contest for it, but also allowed giving a good ‘shoeing’ to anyone lying on or about the ball who’d interfere with it.  This was rightly removed, in my view, as a little ‘rucking’ which at least left red marks that tight five forwards considered battle scars, often brewed into more dangerous stamping.  I remember being shocked while watching one of my first international matches on tv as an England forward literally braced himself on a pile of Irish bodies while he ‘ran on the spot’ on the back of the player who’d fallen onto the wrong side.  I was even more shocked that the player who’d just been ‘mountaineered’ on got the penalty for diving over the ruck!  While many old boys, especially former front row colleagues, would challenge my manhood for saying so, but I’m glad this element has gone from the game.

But the critics who think that the mess which has become labelled a ‘muck’ rather than a ruck in recent years will become better if ‘proper rucking’ (i.e. with feet on bodies) are misguided at best.  It’s my feeling that international refereeing has become lenient – as is allowed in the Laws, to ensure the game does not become a whistle-fest of penalties – to the point at which players have gone away from the Law Book interpretation of the ruck to make it the mess that it is.  If you watch an old game, you’ll see pretty much every player at the ruck on his feet.  As players realised that being lower made you harder to move, and that there was a split second in which you could get your hands on the ball before the ruck formed, things got messier.  People had to get even lower to dislodge them, and had to hit the ruck with greater force.  All of these things led to players inadvertently (I’ll be nice) going off their feet and creating a pile of bodies, rather than a fair contest for the unobstructed ball on the ground.

Now I don’t mind that the ruck has got lower and a bit messier.  In many ways I’m a rugby traditionalist, but I still think there’s an intense contest at these ‘mucks’ worth watching.  If you watch matches from the 80s and earlier, without having lived and loved playing in those days, you’ll probably think that the game looks a bit ‘messy.’  Changes of possession were more frequent and there is often less ‘flow’ to the game as teams didn’t string many phases together.  I will accept arguments that even today, tries are mostly scored in just a few phases and rarely scored after 5+ phases.  But in the dozen or so matches I’ve watched from the amateur area, teams frustratingly gave up possession in try-scoring areas more frequently than modern teams, who would have secured it and moved on.

In order to clean things up, and rather than going down the ELV trial route of allowing hands in rucks at any time, the IRB made a ‘clarification’ to existing Law last year.  The debate over the contest as it has evolved, with bodies lower and often unable to roll away, thought to make things easier to referee by providing advantage to the defender at the breakdown where getting hands on ball is concerned.  A ruck is formed when those two opposing bodies meet (really: bind, but that rarely happens) and it used to be that if the defender was there first and had touched the ball, he’d have to let go as the ruck was formed.  I think the “hands allowed” trial came as a result of the question over at which point is it a ruck or a penalty for not releasing, and the compromising clarification stated that the defender who’d legally got hands on ball was entitled to try and bring it back if the ruck THEN forms.  Sensible compromise, it would seem.

The other lingering problem has been the other players at the tackle contest, and how that player with hands on ball is actually poised.  Players who deliberately lie about the tackle contest make it harder for the attacking team to get that oh-so-valuable quick ball to continue play.  Having to tip toe around sprawled legs, arms, and torsos means a scrum half wastes a vital few seconds to get to the ball.  There’s also an issue referees have to monitor more clearly, and that is the poaching / jackaling defender actually being in a legal position.  While I stress to my young players that I really don’t want to see their head below their hips, refs never call this at the highest level, so I’ll leave that be.  The other main point is that many poachers / jackalers (McCaw, Smith, Pocock, Brussow) aren’t always “on their feet” as the Law requires, with toes touching ground but leaning on a pile of bodies.  This is not contesting the ball on one’s feet as they’d fall over without the aid of the prone bodies.

It seems SANZAR has realised these provide an unfair advantage to defending teams and have declared refs will be cracking down on such things this season.  I’ve heard the pre-season trials have gone well.  Unlike some of the ELVs which have led to boring, negative, overly cautious play, I think this determined focus to adhere to proper Law and not be so forgiving should clean things up at the tackle contest, make it more fair, and make the game more of an open spectacle to watch.  We’ll see over the coming weeks, I suppose!

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