WHILE THERE HAVE been reports this week that World Rugby will be considering a review of the laws of the game in the wake of Italy’s extensive use of the ‘tackle-only’ tactic against England, the truth is that the review has been ongoing for some time.
There is, of course, a heavily renewed focus on the topic and it would be a surprise if a law clarification was not requested by the RFU, therefore potentially speeding up any possible change, but this has been discussed for some time.
Every four years, World Rugby begins a process of looking at the game’s playing trends and considers any possible law changes that will benefit player welfare, the simplification of the game and the fan experience.
“A complete health-check,” is how rugby’s global governing body sees the process.
The current law review cycle began back in early 2015, and some of the resulting law trials have been ongoing since the beginning of 2016.
Central to the process is World Rugby’s Law Review Group [LRG], a branch of World Rugby’s Rugby Committee, consisting of directors of rugby, coaches, players and referee representatives nominated by what World Rugby calls “the 10 top unions” in the game.
Those are the Six Nations and SANZAAR countries – England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy, France, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa.
However, every single union in the world is entitled to propose law changes and trials to the LRG at the start of the process.
Paul O’Connell and Richie McCaw have both briefed the Rugby Committee in recent times, therefore helping to inform the LRG’s work.
Last November, World Rugby approved five global trials – meaning they apply to every level of the game from Test rugby downwards – that have already begun in the Southern Hemisphere and will come into play in the Northern Hemisphere from 1 August 2017.
The Lions series against New Zealand and the June internationals will also be played under the global trial laws.
While the global law trials affect everyone in the sport, there are also a range of so-called ‘closed law trials,’ which take place only in certain competitions.
It’s here where we have already seen trials that affect the tackle-only tactic Italy used last weekend.
Conor O’Shea’s side – who have dubbed the tactic ‘The Fox’ – are far from the first side to do it, although they certainly used it more extensively within a single game than anyone had previously.
The tackle-only tactic has been around for years, first in sevens rugby, but has been more present at the top levels of the 15s game in recent times, with the Chiefs frustrating opposition in Super Rugby since 2015.
As such, it’s something that has been part of World Rugby’s law review cycle since 2015 and the Rugby Committee have approved trials that affect it.
Last season, New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup competition – a level below Super Rugby – and club competitions trialled a series of law tweaks that essentially meant the offside line was formed as soon as one player from the attacking team arrived over the tackle.
So, there was no requirement for a player in the defending team to engage and form a ruck in order to create the offside line.
To relate this back to Italy and England’s game, for the purposes of clarity, the Mitre 10 Cup trial laws meant that Edoardo Gori would have been offside in the example below.
At least one attacking player, on their feet, over the ball meant we had a ‘breakdown’ – replacing the word ‘ruck’ – in the Mitre 10 Cup and the offside line was formed.
The only way for the ‘breakdown’ to end was when the ball emerged or the ball was picked up by the attacking team.
While this law trial affected the tackle-only tactic, it also centred around what we know as the ‘jackal’ in the modern game – i.e. the defender who arrives over the tackled player and clamps down over the ball with the aim of winning a turnover.
David Pocock, Sean O’Brien and many other back row players are known as specialists of this type of turnover, but some in the game view the action as dangerous. Furthermore, many see it as one of the greatest areas of infringement in the game, with many jackaling players essentially being off their feet.
There has been a rise in the rate of injuries due to players jackaling – leaving themselves exposed to being smashed in the upper back or neck area, or having their knees and necks damaged by ‘croc rolls,’ where the attacking rucking player looks to dynamically roll them away from the ball.
While what saw in the Mitre 10 Cup last season was not quite the rugby league-esque picture some had predicted, it was quite different.
There was a reduction in the number of ‘traditional’ breakdown turnovers so many of us love, while defences sometimes opted to completely stand off the new ‘breakdown’ and instead fill their defensive line with bodies.
That meant reduced space for the attacking team at times, although the sheer speed of the recycled ball – so often not contested – did see the pace of certain games rocket off the charts, with some players even running more than an extra kilometre during games.
Instead of looking to jackal, defensive teams who did compete at the ‘breakdown’ were focused on counter-rucking and there was a huge amount of kicking the ball out of rucks, or attempts to do so.
We know how dangerous that can be, and how frustrating, while the trial laws did little to reduce the number of penalties in this area – often the attacking team ended up being penalised for going off their feet, with no defender to clear out.
It was no great surprise that the law trials were not overly popular and have been scrapped ahead of the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup.
While a large part of those of the trials related to the jackal and other breakdown issues, it did mean that the tackle-only tactic was essentially removed from the game.
World Rugby was closely tracking the Mitre 10 Cup last year to note these trends and how the game was affected across the board, but the data was somewhat inconclusive.
In other words, the data didn’t show for certain that the law trials were either good or bad for the game. Further study was required, providing more data.
So while we won’t see the trials repeated in the Mitre 10 Cup this year, we will see something similar in the 2017 Pacific Nations Cup, which takes place in June and involves Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
Furthermore, the same closed trial is currently taking place in the 2017 Americas Rugby Championship, which involves Canada, USA, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and an Argentina XV.
The relevant trial law is indicated below, as per World Rugby.
This is similar to what we saw in the Mitre 10 Cup, with one player arriving to the tackle ensuring that a ruck is formed and the offside line is created.
There is a brief window for players to have a go at the ball, but this window closes as soon as that attacking player, on their feet, arrives.
So, again, the tackle-only tactic is gone from the game under this closed trial, as long as the attacking team can rapidly get a support player to the tackle.
So how does it look in action?
In basic terms, the tackle-only tactic is removed from the game. Below, we see one of the very first rucks of the fixture between the USA and Uruguay.
What we see below is a tackle completed by two Uruguayan players.
Now, remember that this is exactly the kind of situation that Italy looked to exploit against England, standing off the tackle and ensuring they did not form a ruck.
Uruguay do stand off here too, but with the trial law in place, all we need is for one USA player to arrive over the ball, on their feet, and that is enough to form a ruck and the offside line.
Circled below, we see there is a USA player fulfilling those criteria.
Now, some might argue that he’s not fully in control of his body weight in this position, but let’s agree that he is for the purposes of the task at hand.
One USA player over the ball, on his feet – we have a ruck, as defined under this trial law. Therefore, we also have an offside line.
That means that, despite none of their players engaging in the ruck, Uruguay cannot come up around the tackle area in the manner Italy did against England.
So, in this closed law trial, Uruguay cannot do what is indicted in the image above.
That’s because they would be offside, the offside line having been formed by the USA player arriving over the ball to form the newly-defined ruck.
Under the current laws of the game in almost every other competition, they would be entitled to come forward, as Italy did against England.
What we see above is exactly what Eddie Jones was referring to when he mentioned the possible introduction of a ‘tackle offside line’.
Again, it will take some time for World Rugby to review in depth the effects of this trial law in the Rugby Americas Championship and the Pacific Nations Cup, but the point is that they have been looking at the issue.
The area of the tackle, breakdown and ruck is something that has been discussed in depth for decades by rugby’s governing body and the ‘loopholes’ have been examined.
With the trials in New Zealand last year and now the closed trials in the Americas Rugby Championship and the Pacific Nations Cup, we can see that options are being explored.
Most rugby supporters, players, coaches, match officials and administrators will now be watching this space with far keener interest.
The Rugby Committee is set to meet in Dublin next week as part of a series of World Rugby meetings that have been scheduled for some time, and we can be sure that the Italy game and the closed trials will be somewhere near the top of the agenda as the discussion continues.
Source: The42 Rugby Show/SoundCloud
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