The new laws have sped up proceedings, but is the helter-skelter free-for-all seen at the weekend really rugby?
Bulls captain Fourie du Preez said it with a look of disappointment at the post-match press conference on Saturday. His side had just got their title defence off to a winning start against the old enemy at Newlands, but Du Preez’s demeanour was less than enthused as he denounced the new laws and lamented the lack of structure in this new version of the game.
How much has the game changed and how much can we read into the first seven matches of the Super 14? The opening fixture was a thriller, as the Crusaders blew away the Brumbies with an exciting display of running rugby enhanced by the ELVs.
Free kicks replacing penalties saw many of the teams employing the quick tap to maintain momentum. Other teams like the Sharks were guilty of kicking possession away when perhaps a reset at the free kick was in order. Several sides made elementary errors such as clearing directly into touch after receiving a pass back into their 22. However, the real area of contention this weekend was at the tackle points.
The new offside breakdown laws state “there is an off-side line at a tackle which will stretch from touch-line to touch-line and will change with each successive tackle. The tackled player and the tackler are not subject to the off-side law – provided that they get back to their feet to play. This change may be most obvious when a player breaks, runs for some distance and is tackled by the fullback, meaning that 14 players of the fullback’s team are in an off-side position. Players in an off-side position at a tackle come on-side if they reach an on-side position or if an opponent kicks the ball or runs five metres with the ball. In the second case running five metres with the ball is in any direction.”
There seemed to plenty of confusion this weekend at the breakdown with both the players and referees misreading a few situations. Cheetahs assistant coach Hawies Fourie told this website referee Jonathan Kaplan made a few dubious calls at the breakdown, and Lions players were often offside at the tackle point. Willie Roos was also criticised for his performance in Cape Town where he was far too slow to award free kicks at the breakdown, resulting in a slower and less expansive game. Both players and referees took awhile to adjust to the new scrum laws in the 2007 Super 14. Expect the transition to take even longer with the partial introduction of the ELVs.
It’s too early to pass finite judgment, but the first seven Super 14 games hardly resembled the structured patterns of 15-man rugby. The structures and set pieces are what make this code unique. True, the option is always there to take the scrum off the free kick, but at the moment, players are using a scrum as an opportunity to rest rather than a chance to lay a decent attacking platform.
Decision-making is going to be crucial in this respect, as players need to identify when the quick tap is on, and alternatively when is the best time to opt for the scrum. In this manner, a side like the Bulls can still maximise their strength at the set-piece.
What is clear is that the new laws will push the players to their physical limits. The first round was characterised by exhausted players as they came to terms with the increased tempo and longer periods between stoppages. There’s still 13 weeks left of the round robin stage. Squad depth is going to be tested and one wonders if the two finalists are going to be able to operate at optimum intensity after three months of this all-out rugby.
By Jon Cardinelli