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Law reform: Why the mark and maul rules are outdated

Scott Fardy in the Brumbies' maul (photo: John Youngs photography)
Roar Guru
14th August, 2017
57

The ball is kicked high, the chases are making a great effort and could gain an advantage with numbers inside the opposition 22, oh no, the defending player, sliding along the ground, takes and catch and calls “mark”. It is the game’s most ridiculous and outdated ‘get of jail free’ card.

The mark is a rugby rule dinosaur that absolutely needs to be booted out of the game.

It ruins continuity. It gives the defending team the easiest of defensive plays to stop a brilliant tactical kick and chase in its tracks, and quite frankly, is an archaic law that needs to be hit by the administration equivalent of an asteroid.

It was born at a time when rugby wasn’t professional. Players had day jobs and couldn’t get paid for spending hours in training learning how to catch a ball every which way, including under extreme pressure, or regularly get as high in the air as so many players can these days.

The athleticism, fitness and skill levels of players from 1-23 in the professional era are in another stratosphere in comparison to bygone eras.

The mark is no longer relevant as a point of achievement that should be rewarded by stopping an attacking move simply because you can catch a ball for goodness sake. That is all the defending player is really doing, oh and yelling out “mark!”

There was a time when both feet had to be on the ground, and therefore, the catching player not really moving as he took the ball. This made taking the mark a little more difficult as the player had to be positioned right under the ball, or close to it, to be awarded a mark with both feet still on the turf.

Interestingly, for many decades the mark could be taken anywhere in the field – thank heaven that got canned.

In the 1970s, new rules required that the mark could only be made inside the defending side’s 22. But to make life easier, much easier, the marking player was no longer required to have both feet on the ground. In fact, these days, not any foot at all as sliding to catch the ball is now acceptable.

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Since the game turned professional, ball catching drills, and the prolific development of kick and chase tactics, have meant there is nothing that special about being able to catch a football under little or no pressure inside your 22.

Under pressure is different of course, but players are still better equipped to handle that aspect of the game than in previous eras.

Sunwolves captain Shota Horie catches rugby

(The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)

In the professional era, it is considered almost an unacceptable blunder to drop a high ball when under very little pressure from chasers because modern standards and training set very high benchmarks for players defending deep in their own half.

That is not to say that some still don’t always make the grade or that others are exceptional at this skill.

What some people may not be aware of is the other side of the law which allows the defending team to opt for a scrum.

This is not a bad option if your side’s scrum holds its own and you want to unleash your backs, or is the dominant scrum and you can milk a penalty ensuring you get the lineout feed.

I cannot recall that many times when I have seen this option taken at the professional level.

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The last time I saw it used prolifically was in a high school game many years ago in New Zealand where one side’s scrum was bulldozing the other, and subsequently every time they marked the ball they opted for the scrum, milking penalties.

It was a clever tactic and showed a good understanding of the laws.

But again, a mark being rewarded with a scrum feed option for simply catching a ball inside the 22 is plain silly. It is short arm penalty option for ball catching.

So, let’s look at the law as it stands:

Law 18: Mark
“To make a mark, a player must be on or behind that player’s 22-metre line. A player with one foot on the 22-metre line or behind it, is deemed to be ‘in the 22′. The player must make a clean catch direct from an opponent’s kick and at the same time shout “Mark”. A mark cannot be made from a kick-off, or a restart kick except for a drop-out.”

18.6 Scrum alternative
“The team of the player who made the mark may choose to take a scrum.”

18.4 Who kicks
“The kick is taken by the player who made the mark. If that player cannot take the kick within one minute, a scrum is formed at the place of the mark with the ball thrown in by the player’s team. If the mark is in the in-goal, the scrum is five metres from the goal-line, on a line through the mark.”

In other words, a side who wants to run down the clock can take a full minute to kick the ball and if not, then hey presto, they still get the advantage of scrum feed and waste more time with resets – ridiculous law. Yet I sometimes wonder just how many captains are aware of this law.

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Law 18.2 Kick awarded
“The kick is awarded at the place of the mark. If the mark is made in the in-goal, the kick is awarded five metres from the goal-line in line with where the mark was made.”

Surely this is a free advantage in meters to the defending side and for what?

Of course, most defending sides touch the ball down for a 22-metre dropout.

“If a player from the opposing team charges the marking player after the call of “Mark!”, then the team will be awarded a penalty.”

That is a line-ball call in some cases and hardly fair on chasers. Again, the mark seems to be an overly protected and rewarded play for simply catching a ball.

“A ball can also be marked if it has rebounded off the posts.”

Hardly a fair rule. If the ball hits the post, surely no mark should be allowed any more than it should be if it bounces off the head or shoulder of another player.

The bottom line is that the mark must be eliminated for the betterment of the game.

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Israel Folau Waratahs Super Rugby Union 2017

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)

The number of times a mark just sucks the life out an attack for doing nothing more than catching the ball has reached annoying, mind numbing proportions and especially when it is little chip kick.

I mean honestly, give me a break and then more time is wasted as the defending side runs back to get behind the ball.

We hear endless discussion about wanting the game to flow and the less stops the better, so why have an archaic law that gives an unfair advantage to the defending side in the professional era, and inside the 22?

And why is the 22 treated like hallowed ground? It is nothing of the sort or shouldn’t be.

The clock should also be stopped so a player can’t waste any time.

One of the most annoying things in rugby union is the amount of unnecessary time that is wasted. So, here are some suggestions.

1.
Like rugby league, the clock should stop after the try is awarded and conversion taken in ‘free time’ not precious ‘game time’. The time comes back on once the ref blows the restart at halfway. This also stops kickers from deliberately running down the clock or teams slow walking back to halfway to chew up time.

2. Penalties where a shot at goal is called, the ref should call time to be stopped until the kicker begins his stride to kick the ball. If the penalty is successful, time should be stopped until the restart. Penalties are little more difficult because a try has not been scored and the kicker may miss, not ensuring a restart at the halfway.

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3. Time should be called off as soon as a lineout is called if a quick throw is not taken. Time back on again when the ball gets thrown in. If this is too hard then the referees must stop the endless pack communication before lineouts and scrums. They should be banned.

Get to the scrum and lineout and double quick or be penalised. England are past masters at this scam to slow down the game. Moves have been made to fix this gameplay but they are still not policed properly.

4. At scrums, why can’t time be stopped until the ref calls for the ball to be put in and stopped if the scrum has to be reset? This would stop the resets and setting the scrum initially from sucking up game time. It would also stop front rows from deliberately running down the clock by taking forever to get set.

5. Injured players that really aren’t very injured. If a player goes down and team physios are supposedly needed then that player should be instructed to immediately be treated on the sidelines while another comes on quickly to cover so the game can continue.

This would stop the Hollywood injuries by some players at key times. If you are injured then get off the field and be treated on the sideline. Obviously, this does not apply to genuinely serious injuries.

Watch how quickly players get to their feet when the ref says get off to the sideline – let me tell you, plenty will discover a miracle recovery as they sometimes do now, and this is the very reason they should be told to be taken from the field of play to be treated to prevent fake injuries to slow down the game.

Penalties and the Rolling Maul
If ever there was an imbalance of justice in terms of the punishment not fitting the crime, it is the penalty for a single non-cynical offence that gives the side awarded the penalty a ridiculous advantage.

Here’s why:

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An accidental offside just inside the defending sides half or ten-metre line gives the defending side a four-way advantage for one offence.

The first advantage – they can kick it to gain free meters.

The second advantage – they can also kick it out on the full outside their 22.

The third advantage – they get the throw in.

The fourth possible advantage – they can then be in a position to perform the almost indefensible rolling maul near the line.

The All Blacks' maul rumbling down field.

(Pic: Tim Anger)

This is a total injustice for a non-cynical offence. Four advantages for one offence at any time is totally skewed.

There should be restrictions made to this law so that non-cynical offences do not get a disproportionate punishment.

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• A rolling maul should not be allowed to be formed from the ensuing throw-in after a penalty is awarded for a non-cynical offence. Surely the side gets enough advantages already.
• The rolling maul should also not be permitted for any penalty awarded inside that side’s own half. Being able to boot it out on the full and then get the throw-in is ample penalty.
• The rolling maul should not get a second chance at moving forward. It is too easy for attacking sides to get defending sides yellow carded. Some packs, once they know a side is on a warning, can bring down their own mauls in such a way that the ref blames the defending pack and someone gets yellow carded. This trick is not that hard and has been mentioned by commentators such as Justin Marshall as a blight on the game and rightly so.

The rolling maul, by definition, must keep rolling forward, stopped once and then it is use it or lose it. For goodness sake, the maul is the legal offside for about six or seven players who cannot even be brought down to get to the ball.

It a is stupid rule because it legalises blocking on a grand scale, but if we must have it then make the laws a little more restrictive as to when and how it can be used.

If it is not rolling anymore, then the ball must get used. It has been stopped from rolling by the defending side which even things up, then why should the attacking side get a second chance when they are already legally offside?

Because it is so difficult to defend against, even sides that once prided themselves on running rugby, like the Brumbies, are using it as their primary go-to weapon.

The law governing the rolling maul must restrict its use from certain types of penalties and let the defending side’s primary job be to stop it moving just once to at least even up the contest and limit the endless yellow cards that ensue from rolling maul tactics.

Just some ideas and thoughts on the rules of the game. You don’t have to agree with them and I know there are many differing opinions on this but the mark at least should go from the game.

It is a dinosaur – did someone say asteroid?

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