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Opinion

How to fix rugby's most hated law

2nd November, 2022
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2nd November, 2022
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Of the 21 laws in World Rugby’s 2022 lawbook, almost certainly the most hated by fans, players, and pundits alike is law 11, the section on knock-ons and throw forwards.

Law 11.2 states that “it is a knock-on when a player, in tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent, makes contact with the ball and the ball goes forward. Sanction: Scrum (if the ball goes into touch, the non-offending team may opt instead for a quick-throw or lineout)”.

That is plain and simple and something we are all happy with. Knock-ons are integral to rugby union. However, it is laws 11.3 and 11.4 that throw up a lot more debate.

Law 11.3 says “a player must not intentionally knock the ball forward with hand or arm. Sanction: Penalty”.

Law 11.4 says “it is not an intentional knock-on if, in the act of trying to catch the ball, the player knocks on provided that there was a reasonable expectation that the player could gain possession”.

It’s the word ‘intention’ that is the problem.

In whatever sport, in whatever ruling, the word can cause controversial refereeing decisions. How do you decide if a player did something with intent or without intent? You can’t exactly ask them, as said player would just give the line that would give them the lightest punishment.

Tate McDermott kicks against New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup

(Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

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This is where the trouble arises, as no-one knows the true answer except the player themselves. The referee and TMO must then use the player’s body language to make their decision.

Also, the referee must assess if the player “could gain possession”, which is subject to opinion. A third is if a player knocks the ball, and it’s ridiculously close if it’s gone straight down or slightly forward. Everyone has their own opinion, yet it’s impossible to tell.

So, let’s look at two examples of potential knock-ons and their outcomes. The first is from Saturday’s thriller between Harlequins and London Irish. Josh Bassett, eight minutes into his Quins debut, was given a yellow card for jabbing a fist at the ball. Was he going to catch the ball? Probably not. Was he trying to catch the ball and create a try-scoring opportunity? Yes. Did he have cover? Yes. But despite the last two, he was booked.

This is where the referee and TMO have decided that the player was not in a realistic position to catch the ball, so they gave him ten minutes in the bin.

Another example: in last year’s Autumn Nations Series, Nick Tompkins extended Wales’ lead against the Wallabies with a very controversial try. We’ve all seen it, and it’s so, so, so tight. As I watched in the stadium I couldn’t tell. The commentators couldn’t tell. You watching on TV couldn’t tell. Yet the referee let play carry on and the try was scored. That decision is 50-50. It could’ve gone either way.

So, we’ve identified three problems and looked at two examples. How do we tackle the problems? Well, the potential of a yellow card is deterring many a player from trying to catch balls they might actually be able to catch, reducing the amount of exciting end-to-end interceptions.

Therefore I suggest all knock-ons where the player is trying to catch the ball result in a penalty and never a yellow card. Only when a player clearly has no intent should it be a yellow card. This would allow for more exciting games, with players more likely to attempt interceptions.

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When it’s extremely tight to call, like in the Tompkins case, I think the benefit of the doubt should go to the interceptor. However, if it is 55-45 and not 50-50, obviously the ref should decide if the ball went forward or not. These two law adaptions will allow for more interceptions, more exciting games and fewer people immediately decrying the stupid law as soon as any knock-on happens.

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