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Opinion

The principle is wrong, but are rugby's proposed COVID-19 law changes all that bad?

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Editor
26th May, 2020
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1726 Reads

If prohibiting team huddles is a prerequisite for rugby returning to the field, it’s hard to justify the rest of game – you know, the one where people variously crash into and sweat, breathe and bleed on others – coming back.

World Rugby’s medical group has proposed a number of a law changes to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission on the field, including prohibiting all of upright tackles, scrum resets and huddles.

The principle of changing the rules to allow contact sport again is all kinds of wrong. If the way to get rugby back on the field is to alter its laws – even if it’s just a temporary measure during this pandemic – that’s a clear-as-day indication the time is not yet right for the game to return. We want to watch rugby teams play rugby union, not rugby lite.

However, putting aside the earlier point of ‘how can you outlaw huddles while allowing rucks and mauls?’ – this report included feedback from some 80 or more health professionals considerably more versed in the medical and scientific reasoning behind that than I – would the proposed changes be that bad an idea?

We can safely set aside the recommendations around changing match balls and playing equipment as common-sense precautions during the pandemic which have no material impact on the game.

Cutting down on upright tackles will come down to how “upright face-to-face tackle” is defined. If, as outlined in the Telegraph article which broke the report, this is merely further restricting high contact which is already banned under the current World Rugby Laws, then it’s difficult to get worked up about it.

Yes, a further crackdown on high tackles is going to spawn an outpouring of predictable outrage whenever there’s a card a fan, pundit or player doesn’t like – something rugby could well do without. But if it’s technically already in the laws, it’s hard to complain about it. Or at least it should be.

Tomas Lavanini

We don’t need another debate over yellow and red cards. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

On the other hand, if this was applied more generally to tackles which are currently legal – choke tackles come to mind – then we might as well get everyone to take off their shoes and start playing touch footy instead.

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Removing scrum resets is hardly a new concept. The lost time which comes with setting second and third (and fourth and, god forbid, fifth) scrums is a blight on the modern game, particularly when you consider how long it takes to get the first one down.

As a quick but relevant aside, watching replays of the 2000 Bledisloe Cup matches these past few weeks provided a reminder of how quickly scrums used to be set. Of course that part of the game has changed as much for safety reasons as anything else, but it certainly made for more time with the ball in play.

Abandoning resets would allow for more general play and less wasted time, improving the spectacle and potentially opening the door for more casual viewers to tune in. It would also lessen the impact of dominant – or weak – forward packs, a crucial aspect of the sport we all love.

That said, I can’t get too worked up about it, although there will be plenty who have no such difficulty. Sure, a far better solution as far as gameplay is concerned would be to simply stop the clock until the ball is fed to the scrum, but temporarily pulling the pin on resets is not a rugby-ruining law change.

Eben Etzebeth

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

On face value, the proposed changes themselves are not particularly problematic – an asterisk around tackling aside. It’s worth noting, too, that if these recommendations are adopted by World Rugby, it would still be up to national unions to actually implement them in domestic games. With New Zealand and Australia still managing COVID-19 very well, it’s less likely we’d see the amendments applied here.

The danger, though, is if this is used as an opportunity to push through some temporary adjustments only to permanently codify them down the track – hardly a prim and proper way to go about tinkering with rugby’s laws.

While World Rugby is adamant any alterations will only be in place during the pandemic, it would hardly be a massive shock if some temporary measures were snuck through on a permanent basis.

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That alone invites a healthy degree of scepticism about these proposals. But the law changes themselves, if temporary, are far from the worst idea.