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The Roar Law Representation Group Part 2: Rucks, mauls and interpretation

Scott Fardy in the Brumbies' maul (photo: John Youngs photography)
Roar Guru
19th June, 2015
68

Last week, the Roar Law Representation Group began its task of simplifying the laws of rugby to reduce some of the inconsistent and unnecessary sub-clauses in the law book.

But, as we found out, the task wasn’t so simple.

There was a lot of conjecture on not only the interpretation of certain laws, but also the role that certain areas of the game play and how the laws serve these areas of play.

The most contentious area was the ruck and I will address that shortly, but first just a clarification on the point of these articles.

My focus is making the law book simpler to understand, thus making the game easier to play, watch and ref. Obviously, there are areas that need strong clarification, like the ruck and maul, but there are also areas where an actual law change may make all the difference. Thanks to everyone who suggested law variations, there were some very interesting ideas.

Some of my points in these articles may seem slightly superficial, but when you are trying to make things simpler, you should start from the bottom up and clearing up the law book is the first step.

I have taken the ‘no broken windows’ approach adopted by New York City towards crime in the 80s. This idea posits that if you take care of the smaller issues first, then the bigger issues tend not to happen so much.

In saying that, one of the biggest points of conjecture from last week was the interpretation of ruck laws.

I stated that the LRG were wasting their time talking about rucks because phase play numbers were already very high, however there were some interesting counter points brought up by a number of commenters regarding the role of the ruck. Is the role of the ruck to provide fast ball for the attacking team, or should the ruck be a highly contestable area?

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Harry Jones pointed out that the average ruck time at international level is between three and five seconds and that a faster ruck speed correlated to gain-line percentage; basically, the faster you secure and clear the ball from a ruck, the more ground you make. Current interpretation of the ruck has encouraged this type of play even though this type of interpretation differs from the law book. Players have been allowed to bridge and flop to allow more fluid attacking phases.

A player like Aaron Smith has made his bread and butter based on the speed of the ruck. He is most certainly the fastest player in world rugby in terms of hand speed (apparently he has double jointed wrists) and he is able to extract and clear the ball quicker from a ruck faster than any player since Graham Bachop. This arguably makes him the most influential player in world rugby.

However, as Jeznez pointed out, if teams are that good at clearing their ball, it inevitably leads to the opposition avoiding the ruck contest altogether in order to set their defensive line. This leads to teams having to run a lot of forward runners to suck in defensive players and create holes. So you get a lot of phases created, but not really a lot of open exciting rugby.

This is where commenters like PeterK and ClarkeG backed the suggestion that the ruck should be policed as it is written and illustrated in the law book; all players must retain their feet and bridging of any kind should be penalised. That means that the arms and shoulders should always be above the hips and players should never be using the ground or players on the ground for support.

This would mean that players would be in a more upright and unstable position and an influx of players of the opposition team should be able to push the ruck players off the ball.

In terms of creating a more open game, lengthening the ruck makes a lot of sense. If players believe they can get more turnovers, then they will enter the ruck contest more and open up space on the field. However, I can see a few issues with looking at the ruck strictly as it is presented in the law book.

For one, the law book image of a ruck shows a picture of two players standing almost upright over the ball pushing against one another, but this is not what the average ruck looks like in my experience.

A ruck naturally develops from a general play tackle. This is a period of play where the tackler or arriving player is free to steal the ball, so the progression of play into a ruck usually ends up with one or two defensive players bridging in an attempt to steal the ball. The ruck is often a non-contest before it starts. Arriving players often have to use a tackling motion to clear the defensive player.

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Rucks can sometimes look like the image in the book, but putting more authentic images/photos in the law book is another good suggestion for World Rugby.

Another reason against lengthening the ruck is that a longer ruck generates more debatable situations and therefore more interpretation for the ref. One advantage of a short and empty ruck is that it is much easier to call.

So what do we want from our rugby? A game with fluid attacking phases but less open play or a rugged contest with lots of turnovers?

Justin Marshall had an interesting idea recently when he suggested taking away all the rights of the tackler and only allowing the next arriving player have rights to the ball. That would mean that the tackler could not get back to his feet to steal the ball. He would have to move away from the ruck area in the same manner as the tackled player.

This would even out the rucks somewhat and make them more contestable as supporting players from both teams would be more synchronised and you would get more situations like the image of a ruck in the law book, but there is the issue of multiple-player tackles. Would none of them get rights? Would this encourage teams to avoid gang tackling and close off space across the field?

The answer probably relies less on changing the law and more on adapting it to the level of the players playing.

At the highest level, teams like the All Blacks adopt a multitude of tactics for breaking down well-organised defensive patterns. One is to select strong ball-playing forwards who can stay on their feet and offload in a tackle, so if the other team is avoiding the ruck, they play tight and punch through around the edges. Their skills allow them to dictate the gain-line and control the ruck. They look for fast rucks and then to Aaron Smith to give time to their backs.

If they are not doing well at controlling the speed of the game, they use an array of attacking kicks to find space. They have selected a team that performs well under the current interpretation of the ruck.

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However, at lower levels, ruck technique and knowledge is not as good. Players are taught to clear the ruck in what amounts to a tackling motion, this leads to more bodies on the ground and more players needing to brace themselves to stay upright.

Perhaps the answer is for refs to penalise early and heavily to establish a ruck precedent and then allow the game to flow from there, however this doesn’t lend itself well to consistency of calls. The real answer may lie in teams learning how to control rucks better and get clean ball legally while still sucking players in and creating gaps. This puts the emphasis on better coaching. That maybe a cop out from a regulation viewpoint, but let the discussion continue!

So moving on, this week I would like to focus on my third and fourth principles for simplifying the laws:

If it involves interpreting someone’s intention, it is too complex
Earlier in the Super Rugby season, Taqele Naiyaravoro was in a situation where the infancy of his transition to rugby union was highlighted. Chasing down a kick into his own in-goal area, Naiyaravoro felt the pressure of on-coming Rebel defenders and batted the ball dead.

According to 10.2.C Throwing into touch – “A player must not intentionally knock, place, push or throw the ball with his arm or hand into touch, touch-in-goal, or over the dead ball line.”

Naiyaravoro was yellow-carded for the offence and the Rebels ended up scoring on his absent wing. Now, if Naiyaravoro had collected the ball and then tripped and dropped the ball over the dead ball line, he would have stayed on the field and it would have been a five-metre scrum for the Rebels. If Naiyaravoro had cleverly acted out this scenario, the result would have been the same.

For minor indiscretions like this, refs should not have to judge the intention of the player. The difference in the sanction is too harsh and involves interpretation rather than a firm and fast ruling. The same goes for an intentional knock-down. If the ref decides a player has intentionally knocked a ball down, it could result in a penalty and could decide a game, but a lot of refs simply call a knock on because they cannot determine the player’s intention.

The answer in this case is to make the rule firmer: if you knock the ball out of someone’s hands regardless of intention (hello failed intercepts) then it is a penalty. In Naiyaravoro’s case, the answer is to make it either legal to hit the ball dead or illegal to take the ball into touch.

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There are other cases to be made here; for example, the intentional forward pass – currently it is a penalty, while a non-intentional forward pass is just a scrum. This is a law that is hardly ruled on because refs cannot ascertain the intention of the player. The answer is to get rid of multiple rulings for the same play by making all forward passes a scrum.

If experts have trouble understanding the law, it is too complex
Here we come to the maul, which has been a legal quagmire for years. The experimental law variations of 2008 made it legal to sack a maul, which was great for clearing up confusion, but it also resulted in mauls becoming a fairly lame attacking play. As ugly as a maul can be, there’s something awe-inspiring about a group of players banding their power together collectively to advance down the field.

However, in the last few years, under the guise of ‘innovation’ some coaches have come up with tactics that circumvent the spirit of the game, namely contesting for the ball, and have exploited the technicalities of the maul. This has led to any manner of expert commentators, coaches and players trying to clarify the laws. World Rugby even had to send out an urgent memo to all refs to sort it out.

Sir John Kirwan was one of the big culprits in Super Rugby this year, perhaps forgetting that doing the basics of rugby are more important than finding loopholes, he instructed his players not to engage with the lineout maul. This meant that as opposition teams formed a maul and then moved the ball to the back, all the players in front of the ball were offside. Once this happened, the Blues could tackle the foremost player and have them penalised for obstruction. There was no maul formed, so general play dictates that you cannot obstruct a tackler.

Interestingly, this tactic was deemed OK and now we have the situation where mauls get set, players stand off and then no one, including the ref, knows how to react. It’s ridiculous that a team setting for an attacking raid with a tactic as magnificent as a maul gets penalised because the other team refuses to play.

The answer is to treat the maul as one player, the Voltron of rugby if you will. Viewing the maul like this would mean that it wouldn’t matter where the ball was. This would eliminate the obstruction clause and make opposition teams engage in the contest.

So, there we go Roarers, I’m sure there will be plenty of hands in the ruck this week in regards to these ideas, but that’s what we love.