Law discussion: Make them the same

Wed, 27 Aug 2014 13:16
Large romain poite Large craig joubert gestures

OPNION: rugby365 law guru Paul Dobson takes a look at what may simply be beyond the capability of a single human being.

The laws of rugby football are complicated. It is a contact sport with 30 players on the field, all playing with high emotion at the same time, and one referee to apply the laws.

Oh, he may get advice from his assistants and a TMO at the top level of the game but even there the decision is his. This may simply be beyond the capability of a single human being, no matter how well trained and experienced and skilful he is.

The game itself is one of high expectations, especially of the referee. Players are allowed to be human and make mistakes but not the referee.

There are, it seems, two problems involved here - the fallibility of the referee - and others; the fallibility of the watchers who are unlikely to be as unbiased as the referee is; the speed and variety of play; how much has to be processed in an instant; and the complexity of the laws. It is the last that we want to look at.

Let's look at two incidents from recent matches. The referee in the first case is Romain Poite of France. In the second case it is Craig Joubert. Both are highly competent and experienced referees - men at the top of their profession, chosen ahead of many thousands of other referees and appointed to the job involving top teams.

In the first case there was approval of the referee's decision; in the second case there was strident disapproval of the referee's decision and he himself admitted that he had erred. Oddly enough the player penalised, Richie McCaw, the most experienced All Black of all time, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, thought that he himself was wrong and rued what he had done.

NB There are clips below of each incident.

1. With score at 6-all at Eden Park in Auckland, Aaron Smith of New Zealand breaks from a tackle/ruck. His jersey held, he passes to Julian Savea. As Savea is tackled he passes to Aaron Cruden. Israel Folau of Australia tackles Cruden. New Zealand get the ball back and go right where they are stopped. While they are going right the referee has an arm out for advantage in the favour of New Zealand. When none happens, he goes back and penalises Nick White of Australia for being offside. Cruden kicks the penalty which gives New Zealand a 9-6 lead.

The commentators agree that White was well and truly offside. But what made White offside?

There was a tackle - Folau on Cruden. But there is no offside line at a tackle.
The only possibility is if there was a ruck.

Was there a ruck?

A ruck is a phase of play where one or more players from each team, who are on their feet, in physical contact, close around the ball on the ground.

There are New Zealand players on their feet at the ball, but are there Australian players? The only one who comes close is Rob Horne (11), who is backing away when Wyatt Crockett dives over the tacle area and knocks him over. Crockett is not on his feet and Horne is actually leaving the area.

It would seem that there is no ruck.

That brings us back to trying to find a reason for Nick White's 'offside'.

He was not in front of a player of his team who had last played the ball and there was no ruck, maul, scrum or line-out to make an offside line.

However wrong White may seem, it is probable that he was not offside.

2. In the final of Super Rugby this year, time is running out and the Crusaders are leading the Waratahs 32-30 after a penalty against replacement hooker Tolku Latu for being offside in front of his posts. From the back of a ruck Latu picks up the ball and moves forward to where Richie McCaw was standing in an onside defensive position. In the ruck was Sam Whitelock of the Crusaders. As Latu starts to charge ahead, he is aware of McCaw and starts going to ground. McCaw has hands on Latu as he gets to ground and Whitelock approaches. McCaw goes for the ball and Whitelock gets into the classical position to get the ball. A ruck forms in which Paddy Ryan of the Waratahs topples McCaw over, legs in the air. The referee who is close to what happened with a good view of it penalises the Crusaders indicating that McCaw ('Number 6') had come in at the side and telling him that he was not the tackler. McCaw, who had given away six point for penalties at tackles, trudged back, clearly disconsolate as Bernard Foley kicked the winning goal.

But was there a tackle?

Law 15 Tackle: Ball-Carrier Brought to Ground

A tackle occurs when the ball-carrier is held by one or more opponents and is brought to ground.
A ball-carrier who is not held is not a tackled player and a tackle has not taken place.

Was Latu held?
It is highly unlikely that McCaw's hands on Latu constituted holding him.

Was Latu brought to ground?
Clearly he went to ground of his own volition.

If McCaw was not the tackler, who was?

It would seem that there was no tackle and so McCaw was entitled to go for the ball from any angle of his choosing.


It would seem that in each case the referee erred. If it should happen at this level what hope is there as the game goes down its scale. If this should happen in the green wood, what can we expect in the dry?

In the old days the line-out was a problem. Doc Craven said that at every line-out the referee could hold up his hand and penalise either side and nobody would complain. He called it the 'illegitimate child of rugby'. The line-out is fixed now but tackles are presenting the same problem.

Would it not be much better if law makers could make what looks the same get treated in the same way. Take Laws 14 (player on the ground with the ball), 15 (tackle) and 16 (ruck) and make them all the same as regards what the person in possession of the ball and his opponents are allowed to do.

If side entry is wrong in one case, it's wrong in all three cases.
If you are not allowed get up with the ball in one case, you are not allowed to in all three cases.
If you are allowed to use your hands to get the ball, you are allowed to in all three cases.
If the ball is out only when it is cleared in one case, the same applies in all three cases.
If there is an offside line in one case, there is an offside line in all three cases.

Or the opposite.

And without exception.

If what looks the same is regulated in the same way players and spectators (including commentators) will have a hope of understanding a situation. Even the most experienced of top players would get it right, and there would be fewer penalties.

And maybe the top referees would get it right.

Just a thought.

By Paul Dobson