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Simplifying rugby: The Roar Law Representation Group

There's something slightly off kilter about the way the recording device scandal was played out. (Image: AFP)
Roar Guru
9th June, 2015
1838 Reads

Steve Hansen and Andre Watson have said it, while my Canadian wife says it every time she watches a game: the laws of rugby are too confusing and need to be simplified.

Purists will point out that there are only 22 general laws, which is not too bad, but if you go through the law book like I have recently, you will find that there are a staggering 629 sub-clauses – and that doesn’t include all the exceptions or rule variations in different forms of the game.

That must make rugby close to the most complex game in sports, up among American football, lacrosse, modern pentathlon and quidditch.

It would certainly be up there for the consistency of controversial refereeing calls; there are not too many other sports where coaches have long-ranging debates about the correctness of a call, where refs are berated weekly, or where players have no idea why they were penalised – this happens every weekend at every level of the game.

And what of the spectator? How are they expected to keep track when the rulings change from game to game? Certainly The Roar comments section takes a bashing from angry fans each week. And I’m not just talking about existing fans, a lot of it has to do with new fans in growth areas such as North America and Asia.

I mentioned my Canadian wife before, she is part of a new wave of global spectators who will be the parents of the next generation of players. In growing the game, these new fans are arguably more important than the existing ones.

Canada already has a fairly well-established rugby base which is becoming more solidified with the growth of sevens, but the USA, which has a much larger economy, is where World Rugby will be hoping that rugby really takes off.

And the signs are good, rugby is now the fastest growing sport and is starting to filter into funding at the college and club level. Americans like it because it is much cheaper to play than gear-heavy sports like American football and hockey, and it has an ethos of sportsmanship and camaraderie that is lacking in more commercialised sports.

These facts, along with the momentum of Olympic sevens, has given rugby a spotlight, that in turn will create new players and new spectators. It really has the potential to become a truly global game, but development will be stunted if spectator interest is hindered by confusing rules.


This is one of the reasons that law revisionists like Hansen and Watson have been making noise. Some have claimed that they are lobbying for an advantage for their team, but having just finished my refereeing accreditation and having had a chance to go through the law book, there is common sense in their requests.

The game is far too complex and there are many laws that are inconsistent with others, or unnecessary in the modern game.

If we want rugby to develop globally then it has to become easier to watch, play and ref.

With all that in mind, World Rugby recently took a step to at least clarify laws by assembling a crack team of experts to run a “health check” over the current game.

The group, called the Law Representation Group (LRG) – including Steve Hansen and Andre Watson (but not my wife) along with other luminaries like Rob Andrew and David Nucifora – recently met in London.

Hansen seemed pleased with the idea and said of the LRG, “We all have a responsibility to ensure that rugby is as simple, enjoyable and safe to play as possible. It was a fascinating review and I look forward to ongoing involvement in this important process”.

In terms of simplifying the game, the LRG is a step in the right direction; however, their time in the meeting was spent discussing only two areas: the breakdown and the maul.

In fairness, maul laws have been exploited by teams this year and do need some cleaning up (which I will get to later), but the breakdown is currently fine, the length of modern phase play is evidence enough of this.


When we look at growing the game globally, these are not key issues.

First and foremost, the law book itself needs to be completely simplified. 629 rules is too many and we can cut down many of these by following eight simple principles:

1. If it needs an explanatory diagram, it is too complex.
2. If it creates excessive conditional situations, it is too complex.
3. If it involves interpreting someone’s intention, it is too complex.
4. If experts have trouble understanding the law, it is too complex.
5. If it is inconsistent with laws in other similar situations, it is too complex.
6. If someone cannot easily abide by a law, it is too complex.
7. If it doesn’t influence what is happening, it is unnecessary and therefore too complex.
8. If an option is never exercised, it is unnecessary and therefore too complex.

With that in mind, I would like to take this chance to create the RLRG, that is the “Roar Law Representation Group” (try saying that five times quickly).

In my next four articles, I will go through the law book and look at some of the laws that break these principles and make some suggestions that would help make the game simpler for all.

I would invite everyone to critique and comment on the suggestions or make suggestions of how to simplify the game.

1. If it needs an explanatory diagram, it is too complex
When you go through the Rugby Law book, the first law you come to that relates to match play and requires an explanatory diagram is law 10.4 sub-clause O (as in the letter o – that’s right we almost go through the entire alphabet on this law).

The law says you cannot late-charge a kicker, which is fair enough. The sanction is the complex part.


The law says that the non-offending team can take the penalty where the ball landed or where the tackle was made. What is the point of this? What team isn’t going to take the penalty in the advanced position? It used to be a penalty where the ball landed or a scrum back, which makes even less sense. There is then another sub-clause that talks about what happens if the ball lands in touch.

This is an unnecessary option that causes confusion. Just make it a penalty where the infringement took place and play on.

2. If it creates excessive conditional situations, it is too complex
If we look at other laws that have excessive amounts of sub-clauses, one of the largest is Law 3.5, Replacements in the Front Row.

This law has 20 sub-clauses relating to what happens if an injured front rower goes off for an injury, or is previously subbed or is carded, or suddenly remembers he forgot to call his mum for mother’s day.

The basis for all these laws is that you must have trained front-rowers playing in the front row, but all the conditions are a pain to ref and they take time and confusion to sort out.

Luckily, former Irish back rower Anthony Foley weighed in with a good solution that would solve this problem and make the game more exciting as well.

Foley was concerned with the lack of fatigue in the game. Back in the day, subs were used mainly for injury, which put a premium on fitness. Games would suddenly become very exciting around the 60-minute mark because of player fatigue. In the current version of the game, there is a noticeable lull around the 60-minute mark because of fresh subs coming on. You can effectively change more than half of your team.

The substitutions themselves take time, they create more defensive pressure because they are fresh and they also make more mistakes because they haven’t warmed into the game yet.


Foley’s solution was the have a full bench of eight or even 10 players (with more props), but only allow five or fewer subs during a game. This would allow you to cover for injuries (currently there are around two injuries per team per game) but there would be less time taken on making subs, fatigue would make for a more exciting game, and we could get rid of the 20 sub-clauses relating to front row subs.

Those are the first few, with more to come. Thoughts?