Give us a contest

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes that rugby union is supposed to be a contest for the ball and ownership of that ball but very little about the existing laws promotes this contest.

The International Rugby Board’s technical gurus have acknowledged there is a problem but they won’t tamper with the laws that govern the game until after the 2007 World Cup. It is typical of the mentality that has stifled professionalism’s evolution in the past decade.

Having wise people identify the issues should not be confused with innovation. A bit more of the latter and we would not have the week-to-week frustrations packaged with a game of rugby.

There is no consistency in the rationale behind the laws and even less in their application. The two that scream contradiction every weekend are the ruck and the maul. The ruck is weighted in favour of the defending side, while the maul is exclusively the right of the attacking side. Neither allows for a fair contest.

Every weekend attacking teams are penalised at the ruck, with referees determining one player held on to the ball, another entered the ruck from the side, or simply because the attacking team, with greater numbers at the breakdown, had “deliberately” gone off their feet when trying to wrestle the ball away from their own player. It is very confusing, not only for spectators but also for players.

I’ve never understood why a team on the attack would deliberately infringe at the breakdown when it has a clear advantage. An example is when a ball is hacked ahead. The defending fullback or winger chases back and four of the quick men from the attacking team follow. The defender gets to the ball first but is caught in possession. He is tackled and the other three go in for the ball. Invariably one of the four attackers is penalised for going off his feet or not rolling away when physics says that four players should always beat one player in contesting the ball.

When Australian backs started running decoys during the Rod Macqueen era, all the criticism was for obstruction and an unfair contest for the tackler. The argument was that the defending side had no chance to contest the ball if decoy running was allowed. It took innovation and creativity out of the game. It meant backs were punished for being clever or out-thinking their opposition with a strategy.

However, the maul is app-lauded, despite the obvious advantage to the attacking team of obstruction. The ball is carried by the bloke at the back, with five to seven other players as a buffer and obstruction to the defenders.

Those who favour the maul say it requires a special skill and multi-tasking to have seven players obstruct the defending team and stay bound to the bloke at the back. It is impossible to defend against and, when the opposition collapses the maul, they are penalised. Where is the contest? There is none.

But that’s okay, whereas decoy running isn’t? The maul takes defenders out of the game as much as decoy running does. Sack the maul or allow sacking of the maul.

Equally, to put the contest back into the game at the breakdown, it should be carte blanche to attacker and defender.

The contest has been taken out of the game in an attempt to construct flow. It has not worked because the laws continue to multiply for every facet of play.

With a simpler game, referees could again referee and not coach.

It is infuriating to listen to a referee caution a player that he is infringing. It is to the disadvantage of the other side. Why do referees feel they have to coach?

The referee says it is to create greater flow. Surely that is not the referee’s job. He is there to officiate and to apply the laws.

The players are paid to create the flow — but to do so they need to play a game where the greatest innovation would be the introduction of simplicity in the laws.

It is difficult enough that the ball these guys play with is not round.