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Proposed changes confronting World Rugby could have transformative impact

Constant revisions of and amendments to the game’s laws are product of coaches finding ways to bend them to their advantage

Hardly a year seems to go by without another forum on the game’s laws, more recommendations for law changes and another specialist group being set up to investigate recommendations and/or trials. The proposed law changes or amendments being put to World Rugby’s Council meeting on May 9th, notably regarding a reduction in tackle height and trialling the 20-minute red card, are not just tinkering or tweaking. Either step, but especially the first, could have a transformative impact on the game.

The sport’s governing body will also look at reducing the number of replacements and the use of television match officials. These and other recommendations designed to improve the sport as a spectacle were the product of World Rugby’s Shape of the Game forum in February.

World Rugby is also looking at restricting the use of water carriers, and will encourage referees to call “use it” more quickly at ruck time so as to prevent tortuously slow “caterpillars”.

Coaches may complain, but constant revisions of and amendments to the game’s laws are the product of coaches finding means with which to bend them to their advantage.

So it was that the increasing propensity for pick-and-go or one-off sieges on opposition lines which invariably led to a try led to World Rugby decreeing that the defending team had to have a get-out-of-jail card – namely the goal-line drop-out, when an attacking player is held up over the line, rather than a five-metre scrum to the attacking side. At least this ensured these sieges did not last interminably.

The much-debated 50/22 has, predictably, had its desired and two-fold effect. With defending wingers obliged to cover the touchlines, it has afforded teams in possession more space to attack on the edges from deep and has also introduced an additional skill to the game. Warren Gatland has suggested that a team should be permitted to pass the ball back into their own half and execute a 50/22, which seems like an eminently good idea too.

Of the latest proposals, there’s little doubt that further reducing the height of tackles and the 20-minute red card would have the most far-reaching effects.

A specialist working group will be established to assess the results of the community tackle height trials – which were restricted to the base of the sternum – across 11 unions and to “consider appropriateness for elite rugby”.

One imagines this will be very, very difficult to enforce and will lead to a further increase in yellow and red cards, while probably representing the biggest one-off change rugby will ever have experienced in one fell swoop.

Wayne Smith believes rugby would be transformed into a far more fluid, offloading sport. It certainly would make the game almost unrecognisable from what it has always been – namely a ferocious, gladiatorial contest as much as anything else – but perhaps with player safety in mind it is just an inevitable endpoint.

The mooted 20-minute red card would mean the dismissed player could not return to the pitch, but rather be replaced after a period of 20 minutes by a teammate on the bench.

Maybe this will still act as a deterrent against high hits (although there’s scant evidence to suggest this so far). It might even see more red cards being brandished, while reducing the number of one-sided games, although after watching Connacht being thrashed 38-14 by the 14-man Lions, more data proving red cards have such an effect would be interesting.

In any case, this 20-minute red card has been trialled in Super Rugby, but there’s also a nagging concern that the issue of head injuries has not, so far, been treated with the same degree of seriousness in the southern hemisphere. The “considered” television debate among former All Blacks regarding the sending off of Angus Ta’avao in the second New Zealand-Ireland Test in 2022 made one despair.

Many of the other proposals seem to be a response to South Africa winning the World Cup, although it should not be forgotten that the Springboks won all three knock-out matches by a solitary point.

Still, introducing a shot clock for scrums and lineouts would further speed up the game, reduce the scope for teams to run down the clock and mean more ball in play time.

Similarly, the proposal to remove the scrum option from a free-kick at a scrum will facilitate this aim, although there are always unintended consequences, and this could lead to teams with weaker scrums deliberately conceding indirect free-kicks in the knowledge that their opponents cannot opt for another put-in.

Scrums are a unique aspect of the sport and are amazing theatre. But too many penalty interpretations by referees remain subjective, and anything which can both speed up scrums and stop them eating up time would be beneficial to the game.

Anything which can reduce interminable aerial ping-pong also has to be a positive, and to that end World Rugby has also recommended the closing of a loophole – known as “Dupont’s Law” – that players in front of the kicker are adjudged onside once the kick receiver has passed the ball or moved five metres with it.

The maul has become omnipotent. Hence, tweaking the laws so that the ball must be played after a maul has been stopped once, not twice, seems like a good idea.

Altogether more disconcerting is the desire to “determine the optimal remit for the TMO protocol”. In the Six Nations, there were too many erroneous decisions in awarding tries that should not have been given, or vice versa, in this haste to empower on-field officials. There’s nothing wrong if a referee says “try or no try?”, or if compelled to make an on-field decision, is overruled by a TMO.

Furthermore, having TMOs make calls in play, such as Ben Earl’s no-arms tackle which led to the Thomas Ramos match-winning penalty in the final Six Nations game, has to be good. Bottom line, isn’t making the right call the priority?

The proposal to outlaw the “crocodile roll” clear-out at rucks would help to make the game safer. But in all of this too, it’s worth stressing that, no less than the game’s governing body and officials, coaches should resist sending their own players onto the pitch with talk of inflicting violence and overtly intent on injuring opponents. Coaches have a duty of care too.

gerry.thornley@irishtimes.com

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