The Heineken Champions Cup returned last weekend and came with a different dynamic - for the time, the South African teams joined the party.
Rugby is continuously changing and challenging the status quo.
Many of the laws are the same but there are variations and focuses from a refereeing and World Rugby perspective to ensure safety.
There were more instances of head contacts, but they've been discussed ad nauseam at this stage.
It's the breakdown area that I - as a supporter, ex-player and now coach - find the most baffling.
Firstly, I want to point out that I am acutely aware that there needs to be a level of continuity within the game. Referees are encouraged to use common sense and to let the game flow, unless an incident has a material effect on the opposition.
However, you must define what 'material effect’ is, and how teams will toe the line in the breakdown, knowing that there must be a certain element of materiality before the referee is encouraged to use their whistle.
"We need to see a return of the low-to-high movement in the ruck and referees need to start enforcing the current laws."
The most obvious area of the defensive breakdown that causes consternation is what is allowed as a poach and what is not. Poaching at the ruck is synonymous with an openside flanker such as Richie McCaw or David Pocock but it seems now that it is a skill for any low centre of gravity rugby player with good timing, unless you are Tadhg Beirne, who defies all logic.
However, the ruck isn’t always refereed the same. Some referees reward the poach instantly because that is what should be done.
It reduces the time that a player must spend crouched over the ball with a target on their neck and back, thus saving heads, hamstrings and knees. Yet, other referees leave a contest which is great for the flow of attacking rugby, the ultimate guide to improving the sport as a spectacle.
Whichever approach is right or wrong, there needs to be more consistency across the leagues and referees. The part that frustrates me is what constitutes a clear release and the referee also needs enough eyes to monitor a 'second take’ from the poaching player, which isn’t allowed.
You get one attempt at it and you’re not allowed to go for a second shot, which is the most recent focus of that particular law.
Nonetheless, this is actually not an area of the game that causes a major amount of debate. It comes up in video reviews and coaches will monitor a referee's habits to see how much they can slow the opposition ball but there are rarely public discussions on the matter.
It’s more so the attacking side of the ball that I find has lost its way. With the speed at which referees are rewarding the poacher, and the size of the players playing the game nowadays, teams are racing into the breakdown to stop the contest before it has even begun.
This is clearly evident in the Leinster and Irish game plan which is made slightly easier with their pack taking up some variation of a 1-3-3-1 attack because the two middle pods of forwards should have a ball carrier and two instant ruckers whose job it is to shut down the contest.
This is smart attacking play, but the part that frustrates me is the height at which the players do this.
Frequently, these first arriving players go off their feet and crouch over their own ball carrier, leaving no window of opportunity for the defence to take up a realistic position.
What happened to the most basic laws of the game where you have to support your own body weight? If you’re not allowed to put your hands on the ground as a poacher, you shouldn’t be allowed to put your hands on the ground past your ball carrier as an attacking rucker. It stops all contests and is a negative aspect of attacking play. I know we’re supposed to favour the attack but it must be fair.
This style of rucking is creating a downwards motion in the attacking ruck. Even when you take a player out of a ruck you’re supposed to attempt to stay on your feet.
I don’t really mind someone going off their feet if they are carrying out some form of running tackle to get an opposition player out of the ruck. However, some of the downward motion cleanouts are getting quite dangerous, which may also result in that contact that we see angling down on the back of an opposition player's neck.
We need to see a return of the low-to-high movement in the ruck and referees need to start enforcing the current laws.
The other aspect is the side entries. Because players know of the speed of penalties being awarded, and the threat that the opposition pose, they often understand the consequences of not getting to the ruck quickly enough and therefore take the shortcut in the side.
This is happening constantly, yet it was supposed to be clamped down on to save the limbs of opposition players. Remember the Dan Leavy injury against Ulster in 2019?
At the start of a season we see the harshest penalties rewarded. We need that to happen to change behaviours. However, referees tend to get more lenient as players and coaches put more pressure on decisions. Change will never happen if we only half back it.
"There's always some level of materiality."
If you look through any game now there could be an offence at every second ruck. I’m not asking for them to be blown each time but if the harsh stance that is taken at the start of a season were to continue, the players' behaviour would change.
Let me get back to the point of materiality. If an attacking player comes in the side to seal off a ruck, the penalty is only awarded if the opposition player was also trying to enter the ruck to poach the ball. If there’s nobody ready to poach the ball then the referee says the action was immaterial and play is allowed to go on.
However, everything is material to a certain degree. If I see a team sealing off rucks by arriving early and going off their feet, then I would coach my team to leave the ruck alone, don’t go for poaches and get players back on their feet to claim the turnover through a more dominant defensive line.
Is that not material to a game? The poach has then been ruled out because it would be a poor decision to chase rucks if the opposition are illegally clamping down at the ball. There’s always some level of materiality.
The Champions Cup has a mix of referees from the various leagues which ensures the importance of referee analysis for coaches and players, where consistency would be appreciated even more.
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