Monday 23 October 2017

Jury remains out but law trials should receive fair hearing

The IRB's proposed changes to the playing rules are not perfect, writes Brendan Fanning, but at least the board is doing something

Last week you may have noticed new IRB chief executive Brett Gosper coming over all social media savvy when he tweeted looking for feedback on the new laws currently being trialed. Unlike four years ago, when the ELVs threatened to transform rugby from something recognisable, but in need of fixing, into something unrecognisable and irreparable, there is no danger of his account melting with feedback on the current crop.

Being an Aussie, new boy Brett knows a thing or two about when to dip a toe in the water. And there are no sharks around just now. Already rugby is better for the new laws on trial. Not much, but improved nonetheless. And that's an important distinction which we'll get to later. First, the laws themselves.

Realistically, only two changes had the potential for real impact. Up front, we have the shortened engagement sequence at the scrum. It has been welcomed because people were losing their minds over the four-step process. We won't have stats until after this international series but it seems there are fewer free-kicks being awarded for early engagements, and if this is confirmed it will justify the effort because referees were using this as an escape mechanism, an opportunity not to have to stand over another collapsed scrum. Easier to run away, and fast.

There is no evidence whatsoever though to suggest that what happens after the engagement is any better. It's likely that the only solution will be to take the powerhouse hit out of the front-row engagement, as that's where most of the collapses come from.

Outside the forwards, we are seeing a benefit from the use-it-or-lose-it law applied to ball playable at the back of the ruck. There have been few things worse than the sight of scrumhalves cleaning their boots on the ball while they choreographed the next phase of play. Mercifully, that's gone.

Which is not to say that the sealing off, which allowed this to develop in the first place, has been clubbed to death. At the launch of the Pro12 in August, Donal Courtney, the ERC referees manager, said this was high on his list of things to fix. "It's something that needs to be more on the agenda of referees and we have had conversations about it so let's see what happens," he said at the time.

Courtney held workshops before the start of the Pro12, Premiership and Top 14 to get coaches onside with what refs are looking for across the board. If he had delivered this message as a crime that would meet with zero tolerance, then the coaches would have been up in arms, for it would involve a fundamental shift for them. There was no outcry, because the official policy is one of gradually shifting behaviour and attitudes. And it's the wrong policy.

In the meantime, yes, we are seeing an increase in penalties against players whose first action at the tackle is a negative one, but virtually every time it happens the player picks himself up and walks away with a wounded look on his face. This is understandable, because a couple of phases earlier a colleague or opponent will have done exactly the same thing and gotten away with it.

Last week, at the Lensbury club in London, the referees for this November series had their first collective sit-down with Joel Jutge, who in August succeeded Paddy O'Brien as the IRB refs' manager. Seemingly, Jutge came across as a boss who didn't want to hear why refs weren't toeing the party line, rather he wanted them to understand and implement it. He'll know what he's dealing with by the end of the month.

It will be December too when the IRB give us an indication of where they are going on TMO trials, one of which is ongoing in the Premiership, and the other just concluded in South Africa's Currie Cup. The English version allows the video ref to go back to the dawn of time to pick up an infringement; the other version only as far back as the previous two phases.

This is about the only issue we suspect where punters will bombard Brett Gosper. The two-phase version strikes us as the most workable, excepting incidents of foul play where a cold case team should be allowed to dig back as far as they want.

The willingness to take on trials and see what works and what doesn't is what separates rugby from football. On the field, rugby cuts corners and pulls strokes but, unlike football, there is a basic honesty to the exercise: the aim is to beat your opponent rather then use him to fool the referee. And off the field there is a willingness to use technology to make it a better and safer game. It's unlikely this will be recognised in the feedback to the IRB, but conducting the exercise is so much better than doing nothing at all.

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