The complex laws of rugby

Adam Coleman of London Irish breaks from a ruck during the Gallagher Premiership match between Londo

Adam Coleman of London Irish breaks from a ruck during the Gallagher Premiership match between London Irish and Exeter Chiefs at Madejski Stadium - Credit: Danny Loo/PPAUK

In their columns in last week’s edition of the Sidmouth Herald, both Phil Dollman and Mike Dibble included comments concerning the Laws of rugby (not rules!).  
The original strictures were drawn up in 1871 by three ex-pupils of Rugby School. As they were all lawyers, they called them laws. 
First, let us deal with the sending off involving Sidmouth forwards coach and Exeter Chiefs club captain Jack Yeandle to check how many aspects of the Laws he breached. 
A player must not do anything reckless or dangerous – guilty. 
A player must not charge into a ruck or maul – guilty. 
A player must not make contact with an opponent above the line of the shoulder – guilty. 
(Joining a ruck) a player must bind on to an opponent or team-mate – guilty. 
Players must endeavour to stay on their feet throughout a ruck – guilty. 
The fact that Jack has never even received a yellow card in ten years playing professional rugby shows any player can have a moment of red mist in a game in which vigorous physical confrontation is integral and demanded. 
Which brings me to the ruck.  
Every season, I check the relevant law to see if it has changed since I played the game thirty years ago. It has not.  
Players must endeavour to stay on their feet and are required to bind on to another player or players with their arms. There is rarely a ruck in which players do not drop on to the floor and fail to bind on.  
The practice of “clearing out”, where a player grabs an opponent and drags them to the ground is illegal but goes unpunished unless contact is made with the head or neck. 
In a recent interview on BT Sport, the world’s top referee Nigel Owens admitted that rucking was not refereed according to the letter of the law and that he was as guilty as any of his colleagues. 
In his piece, Phil Dollman wrote that he might “inadvertently put my team under pressure because of actions that have been learned and coached (wrong way around!) for the best part of a decade.” 
Precisely, the way the game is played and, more importantly refereed, is largely dictated by coaches, rather than players or the lawmakers. Thus, we have the timewasting mess called a scrum, where the objective has become to win a penalty rather than possession and the scrum half is permitted to put the ball in crooked. 
Defensive tactics have been adapted from those of rugby league. Defenders spread out across the field following a tackle. The lack of space stifles attacking options, leading to players running into at least two tacklers with head-first at waist height. This is usually followed by a kick. 
What is overlooked here are the differences between the two rugby codes. League has two fewer players. The defenders must retire five metres from the tackle area and rucking is replaced by “play the ball” which brings the ball into play very quickly compared to the slow release from a ruck. Thus, defending in union is easier and less demanding on fitness levels.  
The aim in a tackle, whenever possible, is to target the ball to stop an offload pass or slow down delivery of the ball in a resulting ruck. This means that a tackle is aimed chest high, which can all too easily result in accidental contact with the head. 
Restricting tackling to below the chest would be safer. Also, it would allow more offloads and potentially quicker possession from a resulting ruck. Both would give more advantage to the attacking side and result in a more entertaining and, importantly, safer game.     

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