Rugby is a game that requires a lot of rapid problem solving and the intelligent application of force.
It is a game of laws and that is what makes it both fascinating and, often, infuriating. It is not a game for the casual viewer. Because it is a complex game, it has its share of problem areas that never seem to change that much, despite (or because of) repeated tinkering (attempted scratching) by the organisation responsible for the administration (or maladministration?) of the game.
Often, in trying to solve one problem, another is opened up and the law of unintended consequences applies. Some areas that are constant itchy areas are offside play, scrum resets and penalties and foul play (mostly high tackles). As in all complex things, often the best solution is to strip back to focus on the essentials and, in refereeing, one of those essentials is consistency.
Another is to remember that in the case of rugby, the essence of the game is a contest for the ball that takes several important (and in some cases unique) forms and that a reasonable balance between attack and defence is needed. Finally, a balance is needed between player safety and allowing for the context of a physically fierce body-contact sport.
In the interests of brevity, I will look only at the issue of offside at the ruck.
Gregor Paul in the New Zealand Herald is the latest writer to complain about official myopia in refereeing the offside line at the ruck. The Roar’s own Geoff Parkes has also written on this recently and we are only through Round 2 of the new season!
A difficulty is said to be that although the laws read in a fairly clear way (see Law 15.4), they can be more difficult to apply in practice. We are talking about an invisible line that runs from the hindmost feet at the ruck, ten metres from the lineout until it is over, five metres from the hindmost foot at the scrum and immediately behind the ball carrier/kicker.
However, the game often moves quickly, there are often various other things for the referee to keep an eye on and there is commonly some distracting movement of players around the relevant area. It is noticeable that offside at the scrum and lineout seems to be relatively well controlled, probably because the time taken to create the set piece makes it easier for referees to officiate the offside line in these circumstances. There is also less movement and a clear start to the phase.
I agree that offside at the ruck is a real issue and that it is favouring defence over attack, to the point where it is threatening to impact the balance between attack and defence. This does not mean that there is not a lot of great rugby being played, but it does mean that there are a lot more examples of defence shutting down attack before it can be developed.
What is probably saving the situation at present is that the referees are being consistent in allowing defences to leap, not creep, offside – often as much as one or two metres offside. This consistency is allowing smart sides to develop ways to counter the offside – lengthening the ruck, kick passes, inside runners and angles and so on. There has been some discussion about outlawing lengthening of the ruck and if this occurred without an equal emphasis on enforcing the offside line then there would be a real risk of a major change in balance in favour of defence.
Offside at the ruck should be relatively easy to enforce consistently. The assistant referees are well placed to judge this and should be able to communicate with the referee, who should be able to communicate with the players. For the most part I would prefer a strict approach to offside, with the onus on the defence to get it right. I would allow an exception to prevent baulking by the halfback. Once the team in possession puts hands on the ball, the referee calls it and we are in general play. Smart defensive teams would be likely to at least make a show of being clearly a step or two back from the hindmost feet. The timing of the defensive rush would remain an issue, but it probably always will be. Personally, I would err in favour of the attacking team.
I would also be encouraging referees to sharpen their focus on a few critical areas and offside would be one of these, because it is a fundamental part of the game. It is a key (but not the only) structural difference between AFL and gridiron, for example. Get offside right and you can promote a balanced contest between attack and defence. If this means letting some other, more peripheral things go, then so be it, if it allows for consistent enforcement of a key part of the game.
A suggestion made by Gregor Paul (and one that has been made by others) is to have a more obvious five to ten metre gap for offside at the ruck or maul. The idea is that this would make it easier to determine the offside line and it would allow more room to generate attack with ball in hand. I am not persuaded the invisible line would in fact be more visible in this scenario.
There would still be a lot of movement around the ruck and unlike set piece, the game would be in motion and the offside line would still be moving. Most significantly, it would still depend on the refereeing team being vigilant and it would introduce the prospect of the law of unintended consequences. If the issue is really enforcement of a law that is reasonably clear to read, then introducing a new law does not actually address the issue.
The first uncertainty is that collisions would seem likely to be more impactful if a wider gap is introduced between the attacking and defending sides. That may increase the gladiatorial spectacle, but it would seem to be potentially inconsistent with increasing concern for the long term welfare of players. The collisions are already impactful enough, without making them heavier still.
The second uncertainty is that introducing a five-metre gap might create more space and then swing the balance too far in favour of the attack. However, a more intriguing prospect is that the five-metre gap might actually help the defence. Instead of having to close up to the ruck, defences would have more time to organise and set.
It is true that if a significant break was made in the defensive line the next ruck would require defences to retire further before reforming but I suspect that first-phase defensive patterns and techniques would adapt within a season or two, as they did in league when successive changes were made to put more space between attack and defence. Ultimately, to try to break the developing deadlock, league introduced laws against stripping (among other things) to try to speed up the game and reintroduce momentum for the attack. Space alone was not enough.
In rugby, the introduction of a five-metre gap would also have to further encourage naughtiness by the defending side in the ruck, to buy time for the defence to reset five metres back. That incentive already exists, of course, but this would be a real injection of incentive. Penalties are cheaper than tries and I wonder if we would then be opening up the can of worms that is tinkering with the contest in the ruck itself. That has already been shown to be a dead end (ELVs, anyone?).
Another interesting issue is whether the attacking side would be able to close up to the last feet on its side, i.e. only the defending side would need to be back ten metres, or whether as with set piece once a ruck was called, both attack and defence would have to observe the gap. Could players still enter the ruck once it was formed, with more penalties and areas for contention? Would they be entering with a five or ten-metre head start, thus adding to the impact at the ruck, another safety issue? If both sides have to observe a gap at the ruck, then rushing defences potentially would still enjoy a big advantage, as they did in league. Umbrella defences would also potentially enjoy another heyday, as they did in league in the 1980s.
Additionally, where do we want the referee to stand? At the ruck, where they can focus on enforcing good behaviour in the ruck itself, or five metres back, where they may well struggle to see all sorts of cunning, underhand activity. Do we introduce a second referee, with more things to work out there? Do we rely on the assistant referees to do the offside policing? If we do (and we should), then their vigilance and consistency and communication are the key, as they are now. If referees are not enforcing the existing and very familiar offside laws, how does introducing a new set of laws address that? Enforcement, not the laws, appears to be the issue.
I am very much in favour of minimalist approaches to the laws of the game. I don’t want to watch rugby imitating league. If I want to watch a fast, simple product (and there is a place for that, if it is what you want) I can watch league, or AFL, or basketball, or T20 cricket.
If the assistant referees focus on the last feet at the ruck, communicate with the referee and enforce assertively, consistently and with the benefit of the doubt in favour of penalising infringement, defensive sides will likely tend to allow an extra step or two so as not to give up penalties.
We know the consequences of policing offside because we have seen it happen, albeit rarely. We don’t know the consequences of opening up a five or ten-metre gap at the ruck, although we can guess at some.
We have the laws. Let’s just use them.