A tick for the Stellenbosch Laws

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    Paddy O’Brien Rod Macqueen

    Early in the rugby season last year I got a telephone call from Rod Macqueen, the most successful Wallaby coach ever and the mastermind of the Wallabies 1999 Rugby World Cup triumph. ‘I’d like you show you videos of some games at Stellenbosch University played under experimental rugby laws worked out by a group of experts set up by the IRB’, he told me.

    Macqueen was one of the IRB’s experts, along with Ian McIntosh, a former Springboks coach, and Paddy O’Brien, a former test referee from New Zealand, who is now the Referees’ Manager for the IRB.

    As he set up the video for me, Macqueen explained the rationale behind the panel’s attempt to rewrite the complicated and complex laws of rugby. The panel wanted to keep rugby a game where there is a continuous contest for possession: a game for all bodies types: a game where skill is rewarded: and a game where the subjectivity of the decision-making by referees is greatly reduced.

    Rather than ‘fine-tune’ the existing laws, the panel decided to re-write a number of key laws.

    1. They decided to allow players to use their hands in the rucks and mauls, whether they were on their feet or not, until the ball was released. This particular experiment has been dropped. But a lot of the complexity of the ruck and mauls has been reduced by providing for a short-arm penalty (no kick at goal allowable) for all offences at the ruck and maul, except for offside, not coming through the gate behind the last player, and for foul play.

    This law was applied also for play outside the rucks and mauls. Only offside and foul play is to incur a penalty. For all other penalisable infringements, the panel decided on a short-arm kick which a team (as now) can convert into a scrum.

    2. Any player, other than the halfback or those involved in the scrum, must stand back five metres when the scrums are packed down.

    3. The ball can no longer be kicked into touch if it is passed from outside the 22.

    4. There will be no maximium limit to players in a lineout. In theory there could be 14 players inside the 15m mark. The opposition can put as many players in the lineout, too, as it wants to. The opposition does not have to ‘mark up’ on the numbers set by the throwing side.

    5. Rolling mauls can be collapsed.

    I wrote a piece about these laws for the Sydney Morning Herald after watching Rod Macqueen’s videos and called them the Stellenbosch Laws. I pointed out that it was timely to trial the laws at Stellenbosch University as Danie Craven, a brilliant Springbok captain and coach and the most influential man in rugby between the 1950s to the 1970s often trialed experimental laws at Stellenbosch, where he (a double Ph.D) taught anthropolgy.

    On Saturday the Sydney grade Shute Shield competition started. The first four of the Stellenbosch Laws are being trialled in this competition.

    The game of the day on ABC TV was Eastwood – Gordon. Here are some early observations about the Stellenbosch Laws as they impacted on this game, which resulted in a 21-21 draw.

    The ball seemed to be in play for much longer than usual. There were far fewer long-arm penalties than usual, too, with only five in the first half. Generally the teams ran their short-arm penalties. But occasionally when they weren’t organised they took the scrum feed. Neither side really used the gap between the backlines at scrum time. Often the five-eighths took the metres in a one-off barging run. The value of having a fast flanker on the openside becomes paramount as he is the closest defender at scrum time, aside from the halfback. With teams not being able to retreat to the safety of the 22, when intially outside this mark, there was more counter-attack, a counter-kicking attack, again with the ball remaining in play longer than it would under the present laws.

    Teams will get to use the experimental laws in a more interesting and inventive way than they did in this game. But on the evidence of this match, which was particularly well refereed, the rugby tempo of teams will definitely be speeded up. The ball will be in play longer. Skills will come into their own more than, perhaps, they do now.

    It’s early days but defintely a tick must be given to the Stellenbosch Laws.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (32)

    • April 9th 2007 @ 11:13am
      sheek said | April 9th 2007 @ 11:13am | ! Report

      I hope the Stellenbosch laws save Rugby, otherwise it is in danger of becoming a second-rate sport, especially in Australia.

      A work colleague of mine, an avid league fan, sarcastically opined recently: “Rugby Union? The game they play in heaven – only watched by dead people”!

      Everyone who heard the remark laughed heartily. But there’s a stinging truth in the quip. In Australia, Rugby fans are turning away & off. Attendance figures for NSW & Qld home matches are down. Fox Sports has noticed a decline in Aussie viewers watching S14 on pay-TV.

      I’m so frustrated, I’m suggesting the fat pay packets of players, coaches, referees, offiials, administrators, lawmakers – in fact all those people who financially benefit from the game – should have their pay packets tied to match & TV attendance figures.

      If they attract more fans to the game through breath-taking Rugby, their pay packets go up. If the Rugby is dull & boring, & fans stay away, their pay packets go down.

      Why should the lawmakers escape censure, or a hole in their pocket? I’m talking the IRB, who uphold the laws, many of them ridiculous, & a blight on the game.

      I’m not advocating basketball Rugby, nor do I want a return to the amateur days of, “a 3-0 win is better than a 30-33 loss”. I want to see a genuine contest, & both teams playing like they really want to score a try, & put on a good show for the fans.

      The occasional one -ry match is good, as is the occasional 10-try match. But most importantly, I want to see some passion, some genuine sense that the two teams are trying to construct tries, rather than just playing safety first Rugby.

      I get the impression kiwis would play Rugby for nothing. They possess a genuine inbred love of Rugby. The Aussies, by comparison, apparently need financial incentive to be interested, & too many players & coaches atre more protective of their positions than the good of the game.

      The Saffies play a tough, uncompromising, often uncomplicated power game. But they too, can get caught up in the old “us versus them” syndrome, which can be counter-productive.

      So all power to the Stellenbosch laws, I say. Rugby needs something to get us out of this rut, especially here in Australia.

      Now, if we can only get the ARU off their backsides to invest in the grassroots, & develop the marquee players of the next generation.

    • April 9th 2007 @ 11:52am
      matt said | April 9th 2007 @ 11:52am | ! Report

      why the hell dont we make all kicks at goal worth 1 point? it would surely mean more teams would atack for tries rather than take every shot at goal they can…

    • April 9th 2007 @ 5:20pm
      spiro said | April 9th 2007 @ 5:20pm | ! Report

      I think there has been a tendency to bag rugby as a boring game this season, in comparison, say with league. This is wrong, in my opinion. One of the league matches this year was described by Phil Gould, a self-confessed promoter of the code, as a terrible match. There have been league matches, too, with over 20 penalties. With league, as with rugby, it often depends who is playing and who is refereeing. The Highlanders-Chiefs Super 14 match, with a South African referee, had only 10 penalties and a 34-30 scoreline, with both sides scoring four-try bonus points. The Blues-Cheetahs match, on the other hand, with a dominant and rampant Blues side kept from gaining a four-try bonus, was refereed by an Australian referee who gave about 29 penalties.
      The awful rugby in this year’s Super 14 tournament has mainly been played by the Australian teams. The Queensland Reds have not scored four tries in a match the whole season. The Brumbies and the Waratahs have scored four tries in a match one time each. This is a sad indictment on their skills and their desire to play expansive rugby.

      On the other hand, the Blues and the Crusaders particularly, and the Sharks and Stormers, too, have played some magnificent matches. The Crusaders annihilation of the Western Force was an example of perfect rugby in conditions that were cold and wet and, therefore, hostile to expansive rugby.

      The Stellenbosch Laws have the potential to take a lot of the subjectivity out of the decisions of referees. They won’t have to work out whether a maul is pulled down or has just fallen over, for instance. The present laws are too sympathetic to the rolling maul which is nothing more than organised off-side play. The thinking can be applied to the unlimited lineout numbers. The referee will not have to worry about whether sides have marked up properly. There is also possibilties in this law for some shrewd thinking. If a side plays a short lineout and puts some forwards in the backline as runners, it might pay the defending side to keep all its forwards in the lineout. The players at the tailend of the lineout will be 10m closer to the backline than their own backs.

      Taking the subjectivity out of many decisions made by the referee, and also the downgrading of many illegalities from long-arm to short-arm penalties, will have the effect of depowering referees. This can only be a good thing. More matches will be decided on the skills of the players rather than the whims of the referees.

    • April 9th 2007 @ 6:10pm
      sheek said | April 9th 2007 @ 6:10pm | ! Report

      Spiro,

      I’ve been one of those bagging Rugby as a boring game this season, so I accept the “gentle” ticking-off!

      You’re right about the subjectivity of the refereeing. One of the impressions I developed about Rugby these last few years, is the ‘fear’ of players about being penalised, but to no avail. They still get penalised.

      With the exception of the Kiwis, & to a lesser extent the Saffies & French,most other countries try to play a game whereby they try to reduce the chances of being penalised, but to no avail. The Aussies teams seem to have become particularly ‘terrified’ of how the referee is going to interpret their matches.

      Take your mind back to the Tahs-Force match, which ended in a 16-all draw. Both teams spent the last 10 minutes kicking the leather off the ball, to keep play outside of their 50.

      There were two reasons for this. One, hoping the other side would be penalised inside their 50, & a chance for a winning kick at goal. Two, conversely fear of conceding a penalty & a kick at goal from the opposition. Neither team was thinking constructive play at this stage.

      Put it down to fear of chance. “How do we know how the ref is going to interpret the breakdown” is their mentality.

      How can you play any sport to its maximum potential, when you’re in constant dread of how the arbiter is going to officiate?????

      Like I said, I hope the Stellenbosch laws do the trick. Otherwise, Rugby is destined to become a second-rate sport.

    • April 9th 2007 @ 8:14pm
      matta said | April 9th 2007 @ 8:14pm | ! Report

      Gents, its not just Rugby. Just about every football code has become more defence and is now more ‘boring’ than ever. None has been hit harder than AFL where scores are less than 1/2 of what they were 5 years ago.

      Ever our mates are soccer have noticed it – thought the round ball game couldnt get any more dull? well I am sure I read something about the last WC being the lowest scoring comp of all time.

    • April 10th 2007 @ 9:34am
      Terry Kidd said | April 10th 2007 @ 9:34am | ! Report

      A referee has always had the ability to ‘kill’ a game by blowing the whistle at every minor indiscretion thus stopping both teams from building any progression or pressure. Although I believe the current laws of the game need to be simplified, both for the players and the referee, especially at the breakdown, I do believe that the mindset of ‘lets win by not losing’ is what is killing the Australian game. Currently the Kiwi teams and some SAFA teams are trying to play to win, not lose, and that in my opinion is the difference.

      Aussie teams, with the possible exception of the Brumbies, credit to Laurie Fisher here, seem overly concerned with field position and waiting on opposition mistakes rather than backing their own skill.

      I see the Stellenbosch laws as a step in the right direction but they are not the sole answer.

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