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Opinion

English rugby is leading us back to the light (no, really)

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Roar Guru
13th January, 2021
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2779 Reads

Note the date of December 4, 2020 In your rugby memory banks.

It was the opening gambit in a change of attitude from the northern officials, directed by the ERU with the support of World Rugby, to ensure an enhanced local rugby spectacle after the truly awful Autumn Nations Cup and the Six Nations before it.

This is the day the English Rugby Premiership threw the shackles off their game and began the process to reclaiming the very ethos of our sport.

Luke Pearce was the referee that day as Bristol faced off against Northampton and the enforcement of the five-second law was reborn. One simple instruction, so many positive outcomes.

Ruck speed increased immediately of course, but Pearce extended this to directing both sides to restart the game more quickly every time there was a stoppage. The players got quite the wake up and the game was much the better for it.

We have also seen an international referee overturn the ball for a five-second infringement in the Fiji/Georgia game.

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Last week two props in the Exeter versus Bristol who apparently didn’t realise that the primary function of the scrum is to restart the game, got sent to the sinbin, together, for constant issues with setting a scrum. At last, so often threatened, at last enacted.

There is no doubt that the English club game has accelerated and has immediately become more watchable.

It surely is no coincidence that current Champions Exeter have lost two on the bounce as their narrow, structured game comes under pressure by increased ball speed, while last weekend recorded the third highest points total in a single game in the history of elite English rugby.

There is a still some way to go, the offside line remains hazy and the jackler, while under increasing scrutiny, is still rewarded for not supporting their weight nor being directly on the ball.

Clear-outs at ruck-time remain dangerous as players struggle to get to rucks in time and are making poor decisions when they get there, but it is a very promising start, a massive brave step in the right direction and one they must persist with for the long term good of the game.

But overall, this has been a great move from the English rugby union, one where the coaches and players have embraced the intent to positive affect so far. It is in direct contrast to the majority of international coaches who reacted to the breakdown directives of 2020 by largely resorting to the unadventurous and safe.

It is a shame that crowds can’t be inside the stadia to embrace the renaissance underway in the English game.

Jack Willis of Wasps at the ruck

Jack Willis of Wasps. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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It is only a matter of weeks until Super Rugby Aotearoa starts and expect to see last year’s officiating focus continue with the ‘demonstrably onside’ rulings being requested by the coaches for this year again.

That will then give us two national competitions where officials are going hard at the law book and directives with positive code outcomes and hopefully the administration of Super Rugby Au will also take up the cudgels, unlike their indifference in 2020.

It is interesting that local rugby pundits at The Times and Sunday Times in the UK have been very vocal in the need for their local game to change.

Stuart Barnes has been on the bandwagon of strictly applying the laws for a while now and has recently got behind the push to reclaim the authority of the referees by not using first names and only speaking to Captains.

He is also a proponent of the no-hands at ruck time proposals but personally I don’t see the need for this if the laws and directives are applied consistently.

Even that Doyen of Defensive Dross, Stephen Jones, has at last had the scales fall from his eyes and has been calling for ways to make the game more entertaining. When Mr Jones calls the game boring you know we have passed a tipping point some distance back.

But they both have played a critical role in getting the views of the real rugby fan out in front of the Rugby Administration and the rugby media of many countries should be paying attention to this rather than playing the cheerleader role we see so often. Good on them both for calling out how poor the code had become there.

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The big test of this newly embraced refereeing focus will be how it translates to the international game, the money maker and the real shop window for our sport.

Fair to say that the refereeing during the Tri-Nations was mixed to say the least and produced games with the full range from excellent ball speed and space to absolute slogging through the trenches of boredom and uncalled offending.

The 2021 Six Nations is the lead- off batsman with a chance to rejuvenate at the international level.

Here’s hoping Covid gives us a window to get the Six Nations played, even without crowds, and that World Rugby have the courage to direct their refereeing panel in the same way England and New Zealand have directed theirs.

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