Wednesday, 2 February 2011
Getting the Ball Rolling
So today's post is going to be about rugby. It's not about how footballers and their supporters could generally take a leaf (or sheaf) out of rugby's book, true though it may be (think discipline, controlled aggression, respect for authorities, grace in victory, sportsmanship, role models). It's not even about how it's just a much better game. Nope, today I want to blog about law changes. So if you aren't big on rugby, I would probably give this one a miss. I'll be back tomorrow with something more mainstream.
There have been many experimental laws over the past few years, all supposedly with the aim of speeding up the game and making it more open, of encouraging positive, running rugby. I have a couple which would do that. One simple one, one desperately complex.
Simple first: several years ago the rather laborious rolling maul was given a kick up the proverbial. It had too long been allowed to hold up games and waste time, the ball safely squirrelled away under the arm of a neolithic No.8 at the rear, slowly meandering over the pitch, pausing for breath on every whim. Out came the "use it or lose it" law. Under it, if the maul stopped rolling (became stationary or very slow) more than twice, the referee would award a scrum to the opposing team. He told the scrum-half to "use it or lose it". We have this law. It works: the game is the better for it.
Towards the end of at least one of the upcoming 6 Nations matches one team will have a slim lead. They will get the ball in the 75th minute, and that will be the end of the game. This is because they will go from one 'ruck' to another, with normally 20 or 30 seconds between phases. By 'ruck' I mean impenetrable mass of bodies breaking every law ever devised for the ruck (but that will be my second law change). These days the 'attacking' team is allowed to keep the ball at the base of the ruck, apparently interminably, and reorganise the next wave of 'attack' as if it were a whiteboard exercise down at the training ground spread over an afternoon with light refreshments. Arms are waved, people wander about, they get prepped, props congregate at a stoop, there is a bit of shouting, days pass, then the ball is moved a metre and 0.8 seconds later everyone has fallen over, and we start the process again.
If you institute the identical "use it or lose it" law to the ruck, firstly the game will be quicker, and secondly the game will be more open. The reason for the former is obvious, the reason for the latter is that with less time to marshal one's troops there are more openings; there are fewer people per square yard; gaps appear in attack and defence. Trust me, this one's a no-brainer, and it will stop the tedium of the end of previously good games descending into apparently technically correct but spiritually void tactics.
The second one is what to do about the ruck in general, or more specifically "the contact area". The problem is that nobody follows the laws at the moment, no team, and no referee, so crucial penalties are decided it seems on a whim. I believe it's either done on a 'who has broken the most laws at this ruck' basis, or 'who broke the law the most overtly or nearest to the ref' basis. But it's not done with reference to the law book. According to the laws you still aren't allowed to handle the ball in a ruck, you still aren't allowed to lie down on the opposition side of the ball nor reposition your body once you've been tackled. However, anyone who has observed a single ruck in professional rugby these days will know that the concomitant breaking of these rules is probably the best definition of what a ruck now is. Everyone lies down, everyone handles it and with no movement of bodies over ball, the egg somehow magically appears at the scrum-half's feet (or passed into his hands).
So, the new law: On being tackled to the ground and held, the tackled player may hold onto the ball for 2 seconds. If within that time one or more of his own team have joined the contact (making at least 3 in total including the opposition tackler), a ruck has been formed and the referee will say "ruck, hands off" (situation 1). The tackled player will then be allowed to place the ball on the ground free from handling interference from the defenders. The tackler is to attempt to roll away if he is on the wrong side of the ball. The only players allowed to touch the ball with their hands thereafter will be the scrum-halves (or acting) on either side when retrieving the ball to play it. To win the ball, either team must push over the ball whilst remaining standing and bound or drag the ball back with their feet.
If however a supporting player has not made it to the tackled player within 2 seconds (regardless of how many defenders are present), the referee will say "no ruck, release" (situation 2). The tackled player must then release the ball or be penalised and the defender's team are allowed to play the ball with their hands (pick it up).
Anyone going off their feet over the ball at any time will be penalised. Anyone handling the ball other than those allowed above will be penalised. If the tackled player rolls himself over on the ground to better place the ball he will be penalised. The tackled player shall be allowed to hold the tackled player in position of the tackle until the 2 second limit. Thereafter he, like his team-mates, may play the ball once standing. Essentially, it is just a slight clarification on the laws we have but ignore.
Why is this better?
It means the breakdown is no longer a guessing game. There is a defined limit to how long you can hold onto the ball. It encourages support play because it gives a set 2 seconds to the attacking team to form a ruck. It means the defenders know when the ball is fair game. It means a good tackle that turns a man is rewarded as a poor body position when being tackled is punished. It means an end to dangerous body positions with people flying in off their feet into rucks with men bent double, heads colliding all over. It means the ruck might actually become a credible part of the game again.
So there you have it, somewhat of a non-sequitor. Absolutely nothing to do with politics, but if that was all that got me wound up, I suppose I'd be a little one-dimensional. Next up, why fried eggs and love hearts are the best Haribo Starmix and why railway station announcements all breach European Union safe decibel limits. Or some more stuff on human rights - I'll see how I feel.