Across the last two weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa we have seen a big shift in the emphasis on some of the laws of the game. Penalty counts have been frustratingly high and it has impacted greatly on the flow of the game in the Southern Hemisphere so far.
All the talk comparing Super Rugby with rugby in the Northern Hemisphere is that there's a lot more attacking flair down south and that the Northern Hemisphere defences are much stronger.
No doubt there is an attacking flair in New Zealand with the quality of player on show so early on in the season but it has been stop-start thus far. The first game back between the Highlanders and the Chiefs was a bit of a stalemate, emphasised by the exchange of drop goals for a dramatic finish.
The new law variations have no doubt gone in favour of the defensive side up to now. Penalty counts have been quite high with both the Blues and Crusaders on the wrong end of the referee's whistle in the last two weeks, although they still managed to control the games with accurate and efficient attacking moments.
The attacking ruck is currently a mine field. Referees are emphasising one clear dynamic movement by the ball carrier, no side entries and support players staying on their feet even when they have cleared an opposition player from the ruck.
In round one there were two penalties in quick succession for the attacking player doing too much rolling on the ground to buy time for the arriving support players. This is a movement that has definitely been exaggerated in the last couple of years and it is probably no harm that there are some manners being put on it currently.
However, players look like they are afraid of doing any real work on the ground now and turnover opportunities are becoming more frequent.
The focus of law changes have nearly always been to free up the game from an attacking point of view and to stop the defensive team from controlling the game but this one in particular is allowing more poachers to get in on the ball from a defensive point of view.
The emphasis is now on the attacking player to do more work back towards his own team by turning back towards their posts and really pushing that ball back for the arriving scrum half to come in and sweep the ball away.
In reality, that’s what is being asked of players to do on the ground anyway but not being able to roll an extra turn to lose the poaching player is going to make it more difficult.
With more opportunities coming the way of the defensive poaching player it may open up the need for an out and out openside flanker that is quick over the ball. In round one there were a few occasions where two players got over the ball at the same time which is impossible for the attacking team to clear in time to satisfy the picture that the referee currently wants to see.
David Pocock and Michael Hooper spring to mind, so too does Eddie Jones' decision to play without a specialised number 8 and to go with three flankers instead.
Not only is there now more opportunities for the poacher to get in over the ball, they are being rewarded very quickly by the referee, but only if they are clearly on the ball.
The harvesting of hands, arms and elbows past the ball doesn’t seem to be tolerated but if a player can get their hands to the ball it is only taking a quick second for the referee to reward that effort. Maybe the quick call is to reduce knee and hamstring injuries with less high impact collisions around the ruck.
The attacking side have been blown numerous times in the opening two rounds (four games in total) for coming in the side at the ruck and for going off their feet when trying to clear an opposition player away from the ball.
Support players now need to master their line of entry to the breakdown. If the ball carrier doesn’t get over the gain line or if the support player is too eager in looking for an offload then the arriving players to the ruck will have a hard time changing their direction to enter the ruck from the hind most foot.
Of course, these are laws that already existed but have been largely ignored in the past couple of seasons. For far too long now you could probably find a penalty in most attacking rucks and it was only some of them where the referee felt they needed to make a harsh decision on the attacking team.
On multiple occasions, teams have conceded five penalties on the bounce. In round two alone, the Blues, Crusaders and Hurricanes were all caught for five penalties in a row. This is a serious disruption of attacking platform and teams will find it difficult if they don’t manage the breakdown.
Maybe it was weather dependent but there was a lot of kicking done across the first two rounds despite the supposed superior attacking styles in the southern hemisphere. The winter weather potentially levels the playing field between both hemispheres, or maybe it is the fact that there can be no draws in the game.
Current laws state that drawn games will go to extra time. There have been five drop-goal attempts in four games so far, equalling the total amount taken across the whole of the 2018 season.
There was an exchange of drop goals when Bryn Gatland retrieved the win from his Dad’s Chiefs side in round one and both Beaudan Barrett and Garden Bachop exchanged drop-goals despite having a penalty advantage. To put it further into context, Beaudan Barrett has only kicked two drop goals in his 127 Super Rugby games, one of which was with the penalty advantage at the weekend.
Maybe these teams don’t want to go to extra time, or maybe the New Zealander is putting his practice with kicking coach Dave Alred to good use.
Luckily, in the Northern Hemisphere we will be able to learn from these changes by the time rugby is back in action at the end of August and hopefully not be caught with the same errors.
It begs the question about whether attacking with the ball in your own half is as much of an asset as it was in the last few years. If you are slightly inaccurate in a breakdown in your own your half you are liable for giving away a penalty and subsequently conceding three points.
Rugby is constantly changing because of the emphasis on the laws. There are always changes after big tournaments anyway but there wasn’t a good time to do so since the World Cup in Japan.
Now that there are more local competitions, separate unions can trial their own law variations. The 50/22 rule is set to come into play in Super Rugby AU soon which should open up space for attacking teams if the defence has to cover the kick space with another defender.
Teams that adapt to these changes quickest could go a long way in their respective competitions this year.