About time

Rugby actually enforcing the current breakdown laws is long overdue

World Rugby issued a ‘law application guideline’ for referees earlier this week.

AS THINGS STAND in rugby, one could very easily watch back through a top-level game and pick out up to 50 penalty offences at the breakdown. 

In short, the laws are not being thoroughly enforced. 

It’s been this way for some time but the sheer scale of infringements – many of them deliberate and trained – has become too much and, finally, World Rugby has taken measures to address the issue, issuing a “law application guideline” for the breakdown. 

joe-schmidt-talks-to-wayne-barnes-ahead-of-the-game Wayne Barnes and Joe Schmidt were on World Rugby's breakdown working group. Craig Mercer / INPHO Craig Mercer / INPHO / INPHO

This comes after the game’s governing body brought together an expert working group to focus on the breakdown, with ex-Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, All Blacks boss Ian Foster, and referee Wayne Barnes among those involved.

This group’s suggestion was that World Rugby needs to impose the current breakdown laws rather than invent new ones. So, basically, what supporters have been crying out for in recent years.

With 9% of match injuries now coming at the breakdown and many of them severe, cleaning up the breakdown would not only make the game less frustrating for fans but also safer for the players.

World Rugby is putting the onus on the referees, and they will need to up their performances in this are. But we should have some sympathy for them – they simply haven’t been backed to fully sanction what has been going on at the breakdown up until now.

Imagine the review that would await a referee who had awarded more than 50 penalties in a game. Too often, referees have been thinking, “I’ll get the really clear and obvious penalties but I need to let this game flow.” Now World Rugby needs to fully encourage referees to be as strict as possible until players and coaches learn the hard way.

If something is costing them a chance of winning, we can be certain that professional teams will immediately stop doing it.

So what is World Rugby hoping to see change? Let’s go through this step-by-step, underlining what the governing body hope to see eradicated.

The first law being focused on is Law 14.5, which insists that the tackler must immediately release the ball and the ball-carrier once they’ve gone to ground, then must immediately roll away.

james-lentjes-departs-the-field-with-a-suspected-broken-leg Highlanders flanker James Lentjes after suffering a major injury at the breakdown. Photosport / Joe Allison/INPHO Photosport / Joe Allison/INPHO / Joe Allison/INPHO

Too often, we see defenders deliberately being slow to get away from the ball or the tackle, stifling the attacking possession, as well as sometimes drawing dangerous clearcuts from attacking players who are eager to get them out of the way.

On top of that, World Rugby is emphasising Law 14.2, which explains that a ball-carrier has been brought to ground when they are “lying, sitting or has at least one knee on the ground or on another player who is on the ground.”

Again, this is obvious stuff but World Rugby are also stressing here that the ball-carrier must immediately release or play the ball when they’re brought to ground.

So no more rolling around on the ground after being tackled to avoid exposing the ball to breakdown turnovers. Very often, we see ball-carriers writhing around, rolling, hitching themselves upfield, even crawling – allowing them to gain a few more inches but also prevent a genuine breakdown contest from the defence. Funnily enough, Schmidt’s teams have been masters in this area with their ‘bodyball.’

Next on the agenda is Law 15.11, which stresses that once a ruck has been formed, “no player may handle the ball unless they were able to get their hands on the ball before the ruck formed and stay on their feet.”

In highlighting this law, World Rugby are stressing again that jackaling players need to get to the ball first and clearly stay up on their feet once they have got their hands onto the ball in those instances. No more elbows and knees on the ground supporting the jackal’s body weight as they steal the ball.

The focus on Law 15.12 – “players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck” – is for the attacking players hitting rucks.

Very often in the modern game, we see players diving into rucks completely off their feet. This can help to produce quick ruck ball but the danger of the ‘missile’ clearout is obvious. 

dan-leavy-receives-treatment Dan Leavy was injured at the breakdown. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

While World Rugby’s statement doesn’t directly address the ‘croc roll’ rucking technique, which involves the attacking player rolling a jackaling defender away to the side of the ruck and deliberately down onto the ground, it will be interesting to note how referees adjudicate that moving forward. Clearly, the rucking player is not endeavouring to stay on their feet in this kind of situation.

The re-focus on Law 15.5 is absolutely essential in all of this, as it demands that players arriving to the ruck must “join from behind their offside line.” So that means they cannot join the ruck from the side.

Side entry is a plague on the game at present and is extremely dangerous, catching defenders off guard and leaving them exposed to injury – even more so when the side entry is combined with the rucking player diving off their feet.

In stressing Law 15.10 – “possession may be won either by rucking or by pushing the opposing team off the ball” – World Rugby is underlining that players must actually bind onto the opposition and push when competing in rucks. One hopes that counter-rucking is also being encouraged.

If all of this happens, rugby will be a safer game and the breakdown contest will be much cleaner.

Whether World Rugby issuing a “law application guideline” really makes any difference remains to be seen, although the governing body insists it will be “rolling-out education to its international referee panel on the change in emphasis and collaborating with international teams and unions to ensure alignment.”

And so the onus will be on referees to clean up this area of the game while still attempting to keep on eye on everything else that’s going on. They will need support from everyone – World Rugby, coaches, players, supporters.

When rugby gets back up and running, it may be no bad thing to see a game involving a huge penalty count around the breakdown. 

Rugby actually imposing the laws it has set out for itself is long overdue.

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