A tick for the Stellenbosch Laws

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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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, 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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