A new season of rugby beckons, yet in this World Cup year, not a whole lot has changed when it comes to the laws of the game.
In the season prior to the Rugby World Cup, law trials and variations will be kept to a minimum to allow for a certainty and consistency between coaches, players and the referee.
None of the stakeholders involved on matchday want any uncertainty at this point. Therefore, the law variations and trials that you would have seen across the last two seasons have been merely written into law or disregarded.
Most - if not all - of these variations and trials have been focused on player safety and reducing risk of illegal impacts, as well as trying to give the edge back to the attacking team.
While rugby is marketed and promoted across the world, the last thing that the game needs is for the defence to stifle any semblance of attacking flair. The hosts of next year's World Cup, France, will be the greatest advert for the game with their expert kicking game that leads to the unstructured attacking frenzy that they have returned to in the last couple of years.
There are only two new law trials and there’s really only one law trial pertaining to the rugby itself.
The brake foot in the scrum is a key area for referee’s to provide stability and more safety at the scrum. We’ve already seen sharp blasts of the whistle in preseason games to prepare the players for what is said to be a 'common sense approach’, yet in reality it seems like an early warning from referees to ensure a safe scrum.
Both hookers need to have their ‘brake’ foot on until the referee calls ‘set’, or they’ll be sanctioned with a free kick. Surely this will have zero real impact on the game as a spectacle, yet it will provide an added layer of safety to a potentially harmful situation for the necks and heads of the front row.
The only other law trial deals with water carrier restrictions and fixed water breaks at elite level. This is not applicable to domestic rugby.
The rest of the changes to the laws are not new changes at all. In fact, they are law trial variations from last season that have been deemed successful enough to keep. And not to bore you with all of them, most of what is worth talking about is in connection to the contact area, which is a pretty shrewd move ahead of putting the game on the world stage amidst the frequent controversy surrounding concussion nowadays.
The safety of the players comes first, but so too does the safety of the game itself when broadcasting to the international market.
Physical and confrontational forward-oriented teams were using a two man pre-contact latch which was referred to as a ‘flying wedge’. This has been combated with a penalty sanction if two players latch on to the ball carrier before the tackler has made contact. Only one latching player is now permitted, which we saw throughout last season.
We now see more teams 'pulling the trigger' and throwing the decisive pass inside the opposition 22
This was because there was nowhere for the tackler to put their head without being hit by the carriers bound to the tackler on either side. It is much safer with this written into the laws of the game. It also means the attacking approach needed to change within the 22m attacking zone.
We now see more teams ‘pulling the trigger’ and throwing the decisive pass inside the opposition 22 instead of battering their way through a three-person tackle situation.
Jumping into or over a tackle is now formally outlawed, whereas before it was down to referee interpretation under the act of dangerous play.
This is one that interests me because we are seeing more and more acrobatic dives to score which happen to be in the vicinity of a tackle too. I don’t think referees will be chalking off tries due to overly athletic finishes but it’ll be an interesting law to take note of.
The protection of a ‘poacher’ or ‘jackler’ looking for turnovers at the breakdown is increasingly significant. We’ve seen some awful injuries in this area of the game so the focus will be on more safety and less dangerous removals from the ruck. Side entry won’t be tolerated by the referee.
Many will be in agreement with these penalties, it’s getting harder to watch players being removed from the ruck with the power and intensity that the game is played at now.
Further measures were taken to tidy up the ruck situation. When the ball squirts out of a ruck, players are not permitted to dive on the ball unless it has travelled roughly one metre away from the ruck. Again, these are simple changes that will have little bearing on the game in general, but will make the ground game that bit safer for players.
The goalline drop-out is here to stay, and will encourage a braver style of attacking rugby in the 22m area. Coupled with the ‘flying wedge’ law, this should see a faster game, with less multiple body collisions and should continue to encourage a faster flowing attacking game in the try scoring zone.
This law took a bit of time to get used to for players and referees because of the subtle differences with kicks that land in the in-goal area. If there is an attacking kick with a realistic chase and the balls gets touched down by the defender, who is under pressure from the attacker, it will result in a goalline drop-out.
If a ball is kicked inaccurately long and ends up in the in-goal area, and is touched down immediately by a defender with no realistic chasers, it will still be a 22-metre restart. At times even the players prefer to pick the ball and get as far up to the 22m line before launching an exit kick instead of trying to figure out if it will be a goalline or 22m restart.
The 50:22 is also here to stay which should open up more space to attack the front line of defence as the defending team will have to be conscious of giving away a lineout in their 22. However, we are just seeing more kicks down the middle of the pitch because the defence has realised if they cover the touch lines with two defenders, they can stay aggressive in the front line and look for turnovers in their defence.
The attacking team can gain a territorial advantage by kicking long towards the posts, much like Finn Russell in the third test for the Lions versus South Africa, where Willie Le Roux fluffed his kick and the Lions finally found territory in the South African half.
All in all, there’s not much change to the laws of the game but these are laws that we are still getting accustomed to when watching on.
The BTK United Rugby Championship is kicking off this weekend with Munster travelling to Cardiff and Leinster going to Zebre. Ulster will host Connacht ,with Eoghan Cross taking charge on behalf of the Irish referees, which is the game with the most interest from an Irish perspective.
We will see how these laws will be refereed going into the URC, setting down the parameters in a World Cup year.
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