Peter Bills: New approach closing in on 'perfect game'
The news this week that the northern hemisphere, like its southern hemisphere rivals, will have to learn to adapt to the new law interpretations in the 16 months leading up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, presents rugby in this part of the world with its greatest challenge for years.
IRB Referee Coordinator Paddy O'Brien confirmed that the zero tolerance of southern hemisphere referees in the Super 14 this year, regarding four critical areas, will be gradually implemented north of the equator. It is thrilling news for all those involved in the game in this part of the world.
Ever since the advent of professionalism, a rigid focus on defence has dominated the debate throughout the game, but especially in the northern hemisphere. Stopping sides playing, shutting down their attacking options and crowding them out with ever wilier defensive tactics has been the mantra.
Of course, this has been so much easier to achieve than coming up with new, subtler attacking options to outwit defences. A plethora of former rugby league men have descended upon union and, as coaches, implemented defensive tactics that were the staple diet of league teams, but which most union sides had no idea about.
Undeniably, this has made sides much harder to break down in union, because they have become so much better organised. Alas, if only such attention had been given to attack. Sadly, that has been left to atrophy in the modern game, outside the natural abilities of geniuses such as Brian O'Driscoll, Dan Carter, Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana and a few others.
But these changes will alter the whole image of rugby and require greater fitness levels. For example, flankers -- and any other forwards who have lived like parasites off bodies on the ground, preventing the ball carrier trying to off-load when tackled -- have been ruthlessly targeted.
The new interpretation is only following the letter of the law, but it has proved hugely effective in opening up the game.
As I wrote last year, all that is required is for referees to crack down on the players laying all over the loose ball, sealing it off and denying the opposition rapidly recycled second-phase possession. A healthy dose of yellow cards has backed up the strict interpretation in the Super 14 and, hey presto, we have seen some real rugby with the focus increasingly turned towards attack.
I believe that, with this new interpretation of the existing law, the influence of breakaway forwards will, in time, be considerably diluted. For me, this is a huge bonus for the game.
There are other areas which O'Brien's referees have targeted and they, too, have been hugely important. When players have kicked downfield, any player ahead of the kicker has been ruthlessly penalised if he has made a single stride towards the opposing player catching the kick.
This has been refereed so strictly because the lawmakers want to encourage those fielding downfield kicks to run the ball back at the opposition, not just kick it.
Faced with a line of attackers who have followed the kick, that has been virtually impossible for the ball receiver and, thus, in nine cases out of 10, he has kicked the ball back. By policing the offside line so severely, southern hemisphere referees have opened up space to invite the counter attack, ball in hand.
The third area targeted has been the scrums. It is considered that by forcing the two packs to come closer before the engagement, there is less likelihood of a collapse. The intent is fine, but the early weeks of the Super 14 have been inconclusive. The jury remains out on this one.
Finally, ensuring defending players at the line-out can challenge the ball-carrier at the maul, rather than be blocked out by the line-out lifters, is another priority for officials. This, too, is designed to ensure there is a real competition for possession whatever the phase.
These strict interpretations of the existing laws represent a determination to open up the game, to free it from a trough of negativity and defence-riddled tactics. Australian coach Robbie Deans said this week the new interpretations (remember, not new laws) had moved rugby close to "the perfect game."
I'd be a touch more cautious than that at this early stage. But what I like about these new interpretations is that they encourage positivity and target negativity.
This is a glorious opportunity for the sport to take a decisive step forward. It should be welcomed everywhere.