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The Wrap: COVID-19 laws set to revolutionise Australian rugby

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31st May, 2020
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With domestic rugby in Australia and New Zealand now only weeks away from resuming, World Rugby has released a framework of law variations and hygiene measures, designed to provide for a return to active combat, while simultaneously minimising the risks for participants.

Announced on Thursday were ten law variations that national unions have been invited to trial. The changes are not mandatory, and initial indications from England and New Zealand are that they are unlikely to be taken up in those locations.

But with Australia desperate to restore rugby’s mojo and to retain its status as a world leader with regard to low rates of transmission, early indications are that many of these laws – and a few others thrown in for good measure – are being favourably assessed.

Australian rugby already has a proud record of implementing social distancing measures, long before they became de rigueur in the wake of COVID-19. For example, the Western Force were socially distanced from the rest of Australian rugby in 2017, a move that was highly criticised at the time, but which has proven to be effective in containing the spread of the virus.

Western Force Protest

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Only ten days ago, Izack Rodda, Isaac Lucas and Harry Hockings – the Ballymore Three – effectively socially distanced themselves from all other 189 professional rugby players in Australia by refusing to accept a salary reduction to play in the new competition.

Other players are now being encouraged to follow suit, not so they can earn big coin in Japan, but so that Australian rugby can be guaranteed to remain COVID-free.

Being a contact sport, re-engineering rugby to address COVID-related safety issues while still retaining the essence of the sport – keeping rugby as rugby – is no easy task.

Hands up those who live in a neighbourhood where speed limits have gradually been reduced over the years, in small increments, each time in conjunction with an announcement about how many more lives will be saved as a result?

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Eventually the day will be celebrated when there are no deaths and injuries on the road – vindication for the safety measures imposed. Perhaps, but with cars limited to speeds of five to ten kilometres per hour, none of us will be driving as we know it.

Hence the alarm when it was learnt that medical experts were keen to investigate the removal of scrums from rugby. After all, fewer opportunities for blokes to rub their faces against each other means less opportunity for transmission of the virus.

But rugby without contested scrums would no longer be rugby. It would be rugby league. Or touch. Or Al Baxter and Matt Dunning in 2005.

So what can we expect to see when play resumes?

Prevention of huddles and celebrations involving contact is one measure. Expect the Waratahs, their season so far bereft of tries and moments worthy of celebrating, to adapt quickest to this one.

Waratahs players react after a Super Rugby loss

(Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Player melees will be discouraged. This should see a welcome return to the days when players were encouraged to settle their differences like men, one on one, with other players forming a circle around them, at a safe social distance of course.

To assist, it is believed that Rugby Australia has commissioned copies of Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford explaining the laws of rugby to Welshman Huw Richards in the 1987 World Cup semi-final in Sydney. Attached will be a note to referees to watch closely the way in which whistle man Kerry Fitzgerald, observing concussion protocols, waits for Richards to wake up first before sending him off.

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One new aspect of the game that might prove troublesome is the requirement for players to keep the mandatory 1.5-metre space between them at all times. Helpfully, Rugby Australia is considering plans to cover the whole field in small green circles, with players prevented from occupying a circle until it is vacated by another player.

It’s a great initiative. As Kurtley Beale said after he was called into action in Cardiff as a scrummaging forward in 2017: “A job’s not worth doing if you don’t do it properly”.

All players will be now be required to undergo spot temperature tests. Due to the parlous state of Rugby Australia’s finances, it will not be possible to use expensive, forehead testing devices, with one rectal thermometer per match instead to be allocated. Note that in order to keep the game moving, there will not be time to disinfect the thermometer in between uses.

Teams will be prevented from adding players to a line-out maul. This comes as welcome news for backs who detest having to demean themselves by engaging in such grunt work.

Reece Hodge makes a break

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

It’s also an example of how, in typical fashion, World Rugby has stumbled, Inspector Clouseau-like, into making the right move, even if for the wrong reason. Another example is reducing the time allowed for halfbacks to “use it” from five seconds to three seconds – a common sense application that really shouldn’t need a pandemic crisis to fix.

But also, typical of World Rugby, the good intent behind some of these changes amounts to nothing because instead of acting with intent, a feather has instead been waved at nations by making the take-up voluntary.

It’s the same feather World Rugby has for years waved at French clubs, castigating them for raiding Fiji of playing talent then blocking them from representing their country, but actually doing nothing concrete to fix it.

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Thank god then for Australia, like a new puppy, eager to show appreciation for the $14 million bone recently tossed its way.

To get the ball rolling, the proposed changes were run past a group of ten randomly selected ex-captains for their approval. Nine of the captains were in agreement, with only Phil Kearns unavailable, apparently on a week-long bender, celebrating the pending withdrawal of the Jaguares from Super Rugby.

The state unions have also come to the party. A letter agreeing to the changes was signed off by all of the state chairmen bar one, saying that “although we didn’t bother speaking to Roger Davis from New South Wales about this, be assured that all of the states are aligned”.

A list of proposed changes was also provided to accidental board member Peter Wiggs for his assessment, although he is believed to have refused to comment unless Matt Carroll receives a copy.

Not everyone is happy, All Black Brad Weber calling the mooted changes “ridiculous”. Weber is entitled to his opinion, however can be safely considered just another in a line of yappy halfbacks with too much to say for themselves.

(Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

At least Weber can console himself in New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern outing herself last week as a Chiefs supporter. Rumours that she has been invited to drive the Chiefs’ bus to this year’s end-of-season party are as yet unconfirmed.

A genuine concern is how TMOs will approach matters. Having struck a better balance in 2020, there is a risk that all of the good work will be wasted by inviting them back into the game.

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Does rugby really need play to bought to a sudden halt for the TMO and referee to pore over multiple angle replays, trying to determine if a player has wiped his runny nose on his sleeve, or whether it was just to scratch a dry itch?

If that’s the difference between a red or a yellow card, and winning or losing, I’ll stick to watching replays of Scotland’s enthralling 9-6 win over Australia in Newcastle in 2012, thanks.

These are tough times for Australian rugby. Many people within Rugby Australia and the franchise organisations will not be getting their jobs back. Players have been spooked into believing that the sky is falling in.

And if you thought all of the value has been leached out of Australian rugby, don’t. There is more pain to come.

But if rugby is indeed going out the back door in Australia, or returning to its amateur roots, we should all at least take comfort in the knowledge that it is doing so safely.

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When it comes to winning the Bledisloe Cup or the World Cup, Australian rugby might be absolute shite. But thanks to COVID-19, it might just have found a way it can lead the rest of the world – player compliance in the use of hand sanitiser.

Anyone wishing to view the actual variations provided by World Rugby can do so here, noting that Rugby Australia is yet to announce which, if any, will apply during Super Rugby Domestic.