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Is the penalty advantage call a contradiction in terms

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Roar Guru
21st June, 2020

Advantage: a condition or circumstance that puts one into a favourable or superior position.

The rugby union penalty advantage call appears to have morphed over time into a call that favours the defensive side rather than the attacking one, negating the actual meaning of the term. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out.

With regard to the penalty advantage call, especially for offside and slowing the ball down at a ruck, the defensive side accrue extra time to organise their line, get as many people onto their feet as possible and, in short, make it as difficult as possible for the attacking side. This is particularly so if, as was often the case on the pre-breakdown directive days, the advantage call came after a referee warning ‘hands off, roll away’.

Whatever it may be, it buys precious seconds for the defensive side.

But the key reason is that the penalty advantage call deprives the attacking side of a weapon that can really punish: the tap penalty. No time for the defence to organise but, most importantly, under a penalty call the defence needs to get back ten metres to be onside, not as little as one metre if you are getting up from a ruck at which you have just offended.

A good rule for testing a premise is to decide what your opponent would least like you to do.


As a defender you slow the ball down at a ruck, which is the poorer defensive outcome.

  1. An advantage call against you, where all your teammates are defensively organised and when you get up off the ground you have a metre to get back on-side; or
  2. A whistle for a penalty against you, a tap penalty is taken against your retreating teammates and you have at least ten metres to get back in the defensive line.

Wouldn’t the second option constantly be more advantageous to the attacking team? It’s not as if the advantage law today actually changes outcomes very much.

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My very unscientific study is based on the four Super Rugby Aotearoa matches to date. There have been 37 penalty advantages (or ones that have run for any length of time):

  • 15 returned to the original spot and a kick to the line taken;
  • 12 returned to the original spot for a kick at goal;
  • five were drop goals, scrums or tap penalties; and
  • five resulted in tries.

Surely we wouldn’t want to scrap a call that generated five tries in four matches, and I agree. But four of these tries were under advantage close to the line, with momentum and with a high probability of a try being scored anyway, so, again, calling advantage did not change an outcome.

The example at 30 seconds of the following clip refers to: close to the line, momentum up, and advantage call or not this try is going to be scored. We need to keep the provision to allow these situations to play on and not blow the whistle.

However, we had 32 situations where it would be better for the attacking side to have the penalty awarded immediately. Perversely, we are taking a potential weapon, the tap penalty, away from the attacking side by allowing advantage to be called.

To play 30 seconds (one was over a minute), or more and then return to the same spot for the original infringement seems like a waste of genuine game time too, especially when more than 22 metres out from the tryline.

There is a real wave within the game right now to ensure greater ball movement and reintroduce fatigue to the sport. Walking back 20 metres and 40 across to the other side of the field as an advantage fizzles, so a side can kick for touch. It seems like another break in play we can avoid by simply awarding penalties as they occur, and running back ten metres to get onside is a whole lot harder than walking slowly back as the referee runs backs to the mark.


From my admittedly limited study I would suggest retaining the penalty advantage call where sides have momentum and are within ten metres of the tryline, but anywhere else on the field, forget the call, award the penalty quickly and allow the attacking side to decide their own outcomes.