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Early days, but some of these NRC Law Variations have merit

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4th September, 2019
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It didn’t take long for the new World Rugby-approved Law Variations to surface on the opening weekend of the National Rugby Championship, and all in all, they seem to have been mostly well-received and reasonably well-utilised.

Some appeared more often than others, but in fairness, some lend themselves to more regular application.

Firstly, a recap. World Rugby this approved a tranche of six Law Variations for use in closed trials back in August, with a headline and focus of injury prevention the main motivator for their approval. Of the six, three were specifically listed as “Approved for closed trial in the National Rugby Championship (NRC) in Australia.”

But none of those were the injury prevention LVs, namely the high tackle technique warning, the reduction of the tackle height to around the waist, and an ability to review yellow cards for foul play and upgrade them to red while the player is off the field.

The three that were approved for use in the NRC were these.

50:22 Kick: If the team in possession kicks the ball from inside their own half indirectly into touch inside their opponents’ 22 or from inside their own 22 into their opponents’ half, they will throw in to the resultant lineout

Rationale: To create space by forcing players to drop back out of the defensive line in order to prevent their opponents from kicking for touch.

The awarding of a goal line dropout to the defending team when an attacking player, who brings the ball into in-goal, is held up.

Rationale: To reward good defence and promote a faster rate of play.

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The introduction of an infringement limit (penalty and free-kick) for teams. Once a team has reached the limit, a mandatory yellow card is given to the last offending player as a team sanction. Rationale: To encourage teams to offend less.

Rob Simmons yellow card

Rob Simmons is shown a yellow card (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

What’s the last one, you say?

Well, it does what it says, but when push came to shove in the weeks leading into this season’s NRC, the implementation of this one was quickly consigned it to the ‘too hard’ basket.

My understanding is that it wasn’t coming up with the arbitrary number that would become “the limit” that was the problem.

Rather, it was a simple matter of who would keep count of all the infringements for both sides, and who would communicate what to whom that actually, that was indeed the first infringement beyond the limit, so you need to reach for the pocket if you don’t mind. And naturally, with a bunch of coaches in a room, as soon as the option of scrapping this particular LV was raised, it took all of several seconds for everyone to agree that was a sensible idea.

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So for 2019, we’re left with the 50-22 kick, and the goal-line dropout for defending teams holding up the ball in-goal.

The 50-22 quick is, of course, modelled on rugby league’s 40-20 quick, but only much more generous.

Not surprisingly, teams were reasonably well aware of it and defended it pretty well, meaning there were only three or four attempts each game last weekend.

And they definitely worked in terms of turning defence into attacking opportunities. But some attempts were successful by accident, too.

NSW Country superboot James Kane broke clear down the Eagles left wing, chipped ahead into space, only for the bouncing rugby ball to turn square – Shane Warne-like to Mike Gatting – and go into touch. What felt like a play that had broken down was actually the start of another opportunity, because he’d accidentally pulled off a 50-22 kick, thus giving Country the lineout throw.

But rather surprisingly, we learned during the Brisbane City-Fiji game on Saturday that the opposite of 50-22 is also true. I’d heard anecdotally that the 22-50 kick option was also in play but couldn’t get it confirmed. And the World Rugby release about the LVs as approved made no mention of a lineout for a team who can find touch inside the opposition half from inside their own 22.

Mosese Voka of the Fijian Drua

Mosese Voka of the Fijian Drua. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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But here we were. Drua scrumhalf Seru Vularika kicked from the back of a lineout inside their 22, and found touch just inside the City half, on the full, as he’s well entitled to do. But by the time the Fijians arrived for the lineout, they were surprised to learn it was their throw-in.

Nic Berry could be heard talking to his assistant referee, “He’s kicked it from inside the 22, so it’s their ball,” before turning to the Fijian forwards who by then were already eyeing off the City jumpers.

“Fiji, it’s your ball. New rules, you kicked it out from inside your 22,” Berry said, confirming that not only does the 22-50 variation exist, but that you don’t have to kick the ball into touch on the bounce to earn the lineout throw.

In truth, I’m not sure about this part of the LV. The 50-22 part is there to reward tactical kicking, and will by default create counter-attacking opportunities for when kicks go awry. But I’m not sure that a team being pinned back into the 22 should be rewarded with a lineout throw just for bombing a ball out on the full beyond halfway.

I’m not sure the 22-50 part of the LV actually works to the intent of the variation. But this is why we trial these things, to find out how they work in practice. And I’m not sure this one does.

I do like the goal-line dropout for the defending team, however, and there was one standout example from the weekend.

Canberra had Melbourne on the backfoot early on in the second game of the weekend, leading 14-3 after fourteen minutes. Another attacking raid put them in try-scoring territory, but as their lunge at the line on the pick and drive was ruled to have been held up, suddenly there were players scattering everywhere, as the Rising realised they’d earned a goal-line dropout, and the Vikings forwards realised they needed to get up and get back into position, pronto.

The Rising rushed out toward the posts, but didn’t go all the way to the midpoint before launching a massive drop kick downfield, and when the Vikings finally brought the ball into the safety of their possession again, they were launching their next attack back near halfway.

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I reckon this one has plenty of merit, too. For one thing, when the referee gets a clear view of the ball being held up, the game just gets up and gets on with it, with the defending team just desperate to get the hell away from their own try line.

And it will mean teams on attack have to be really sure when they make that lunge at the line. They can’t just charge in and hope for the best, knowing that they will get a scrum feed if they can’t get the ball down.

If that brings a bit more precision about the way teams pick and drive, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Again, this is why we trial these things, to see how they work in actuality. And on the first showing of the two LVs in place for the NRC, and notwithstanding the reservations above about the 22-50 kick, I think the two in play this season have some real practical benefits.