• A Blight on the Game


    There was a point in Friday night’s Super Rugby game between the Crusaders and the Reds when Scotty Stevenson said in his television commentary, as the referee signalled yet another penalty advantage to the visiting Reds, “it’s like a never-ending advantage.”

    There must have been many, both at the ground and watching on television, who shared his frustration, and not just because they were supporting the Crusaders.  The comment came during a passage of play with which we have become all too familiar and which epitomised what is in danger of becoming a blight on the game.

    The sequence of events followed a mind-numbingly predictable pattern.  All that is required to set it in motion is that a penalty is awarded to the recipient team somewhere in the opposition’s half of the field.  The decision is taken to kick for the corner rather than take a shot at goal, or a quick tap, or an up-and–under, or any other option that might involve the handling, passing and running skills that constitute so much of the appeal of rugby as a game.

    The kick for the corner is duly taken and results in a lineout, usually five metres or so from the line.  By virtue of the penalty, the attacking team has the advantage of throwing into the lineout and can be virtually guaranteed possession, since the defending team dares not contest the lineout for fear that if it does so it will not be properly prepared to resist the inevitable drive for the line.

    The drive duly follows, and is organised on the basis that players from the attacking team who do not have the ball are entitled to charge forward, clearing opponents out of the way, so that one of their number carrying the ball at the back of the five-metre drive can dot it down over the line when the opposition have been splintered.

    If the opposition are unwise enough to respond in kind by tackling the players advancing on them, they are penalised for “dragging down” the drive, in which case the ball is again kicked into touch and the manoeuvre is repeated.  If the same result is produced, another penalty will be awarded and there is a danger that the outcome will eventually be a penalty try, perhaps accompanied by a yellow card.

    The repetition is so marked that, as Scotty Stevenson remarked, it’s as though we are “on a loop”.  The defending team, once locked into the sequence, finds it very difficult to break free, and the effect is magnified by the length of the advantage that most referees now allow.

    The tactic is permitted by the current rules, which referees cannot be criticised for applying.  But it is surely obvious that the lineout drive is increasingly at odds with the kind of contest that the game is intended to promote.

    It is increasingly used by teams that do not have the wit, skill or ambition to score tries in any other way.  In recent weeks, in the Super Rugby competition, we have seen teams like the Sharks, the Brumbies and the Reds all attempt to negate the superior skills of their opponents by taking advantage of the rules that in effect hand the ball to them just five metres from the line and then invite them to mobilise anything up to the whole team in order to push opponents out of the way so that one ball-carrier can cross the five metres to the line.

    The rules mean that the awarding of a penalty on the halfway line can produce an outcome that is often out of all proportion to the gravity of the offence.  It will often lead to a protracted sequence of play, when the ball does not move for minutes on end from a narrow sphere just metres from the line and when repeated and valiant defensive efforts are met by a succession of penalties that ensure that the same dismal manoeuvre is endlessly reproduced.  The advantage from the original penalty can be endlessly prolonged.

    It is worth noting that the Crusaders on Friday night, after scoring five tries through running rugby, eventually made what might be regarded as an ironic point by scoring a sixth as a result of a well-executed lineout drive.  They demonstrated that there is room in the game for the traditional rolling maul – as long as it is not the only tactic employed. The varied range of skills and tactics that are possible in rugby is, after all, one of the reasons why it is such a great game.

    The powers that be have already begun to address some of problems arising from the current rules.  The solution surely lies in ensuring that the balance of advantage does not lie, with such boring predictability, so one-sidedly in the hands of a team that has done nothing more to earn it than to be awarded a penalty within kicking distance of the corner.  It must surely be made possible for the defending team to resist the drive by legitimate means so that it does not repeatedly run the risk of being pinned on its line until a try or further penalties are conceded.  What must be changed is the high probability that the endless deployment of a sterile tactic will produce an unjustified bonus on the scoreboard.

    Bryan Gould

    7 May 2016


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