Thursday 14 November 2019

Rugby must create extra space for welcome collision

Referees must become ruthless in enforcing breakdown laws, says Brendan Fanning

All Black's head coach Steve Hansen is part of World Rugby’s Law Representation Group, which last week convened in London for a couple of days to put together a menu of potential changes to the game
All Black's head coach Steve Hansen is part of World Rugby’s Law Representation Group, which last week convened in London for a couple of days to put together a menu of potential changes to the game
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On the weekend of the France versus Wales game in Paris, and Ireland versus England in Dublin two months ago, All Black coach Steve Hansen popped up from the southern hemisphere to see what was going on.

His New Zealand side will expect to play Ireland or France in the first of the World Cup quarter-finals, in Cardiff on October 17. So his trip was partly about checking out the opposition, and partly about laying down a marker for how he thought the game of rugby should be changed.

To satisfy the latter, he needed to engage with the media and sure enough, right on cue, we got a 'Hansen fears for the game's future' headline.

"I've actually got big concerns for the game at the moment," he said. "There are not enough tries being scored, which is turning the fans away."

Any time you hear a coach expressing a 'whither rugby football' sentiment, you have to filter the message through the prism that is the needs of his team. So if, for example, Joe Schmidt was to start banging on about the imperative to do away with the scrum altogether you might reasonably infer that he had lifted the lid on the Ireland props' box and found it empty.

In Hansen's case, he was raising the red flag over the breakdown, that area of rugby which sees more action than any other in the game, and is more contentious even than the eyesore that is the scrum.

"There are so many people going off their feet at the breakdown and everybody has got their hands on the ground - and they (referees) are allowing that to happen," the Kiwi said. "It's slowing the ball down and if you slow the ball down people can get their defensive lines in place. And when they are two feet in front of where they should be then there's just no space."

Forgive our cynicism but maybe this is Hansen looking at how in rugby nowadays fortune favours the big more than the brave. Say, the South Africans - genetically larger creatures than the New Zealanders. Time to change the dynamic then.

Hansen is part of World Rugby's Law Representation Group, which last week convened in London for a couple of days to put together a menu of potential changes to the game. They will make a recommendation to the ruling body's rugby committee in September and after the World Cup in England we'll be looking forward to perhaps local trials of some sort - for example in a varsity or age-grade competition.

Even allowing for the fact that Hansen, like all his coaching brethren, has an agenda of some sort, he is on the money about the need to retrieve the space that has been lost on the field.

When you hear people talking about the prospect of widening the field then you know you're in trouble. It's not just a question of width however, rather it's about depth. There is none. And trying to operate in an environment like that is what has us all reaching for the buttons marked 'health and safety.'

If 2016/'17 strikes you as a long wait before a global trial might confirm a route that is safer and better to watch then there are a couple of things that could change without convening a meeting of the rugby committee.

First, tell referees that if they don't enforce the hindmost foot law in the way Tony Soprano does his business then they have no chance of career advancement. Ideally, we would like to see the offside line set a metre behind the back foot at the breakdown, but that would require trialling and politicking and some of us would have lost the will to live by the time it achieved acceptance.

Instead be ruthless in the application of the law as it stands. Penalise those who cheat on the back foot. Sin-bin those who set their defensive line halfway up the ruck. Initially it would be mayhem - for about a fortnight. Penalty counts would rocket and the twittersphere would have a field day. Then the smoke would clear and we would have a better game.

Second, if you combined it with players not being allowed to bridge with their hands on the ground - again this only requires application of a law that is routinely ignored, ie that players' body weight should be on their feet - then you'd have an added benefit: it would encourage participation in the ruck in the first place. Occasionally we've mentioned the above to referees and they look at you like you've just asked them to run around the field buck naked. Perhaps they just want the assurance from their bosses that they could go out and apply those laws as they are written, and not worry about the consequences.

Fair enough: if you were first out of the traps on this one and your buddies decided to stay put you'd soon be considering another line of business. So successive referee managers have a case to answer here.

And so do the Steve Hansens of the world. Their circumstances dictate that coaches are driven by self-interest, so we should be sceptical when they talk about the good of the game. Sometimes that self-interest and the good of the game collide however. Unusually, given the current trend, this is a welcome collision.

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