Written by Fraser Kesteven
It is heartening to know that new laws will be introduced next year to combat some of rugby's more problematic areas. At present, the sport is in desperate need of legislative reform to confront the various grey areas that both turn off and confuse even the most enthusiastic of supporters. These changes are based on recommendations from the IRB's Laws Representative Group, an independent body that examines rugby legislation and monitors where it could conceivably be improved.
Perhaps the law that will garner most approval is the long overdue reform of rucking, which has previously allowed forwards to retain the ball for an indefinite amount of time. Under current laws, it is not incumbent on the scrum half to utilise the ball until it is beyond the 'back foot'. This has led to the cynical running down of the clock which, whilst not only unsporting, proves tedious for the spectators. This technique was enacted recently when Harlequins deliberately wasted time against Northampton to secure their passage to the Aviva Premiership Final. Under the new recommended law, a team is required to use the ball after five seconds at a ruck, otherwise their opponents will be awarded a scrum.
Yet, despite the quickening of the game this law will obviously entail, there remain many problems which it has failed to rectify. Problems concerning competitiveness at rucks is still prevalent, with the ability of the opposition to win the ball through counter-rucking remaining very difficult. The uncompetitive nature that this encourages means that rather than committing men into the rucks in the hope that they can create an opportunitiy for a turnover, sides instead spread their men in open play to bolster their defensive reserves. Not only does this make the game more ponderous, but it also discourages open and attacking rugby. Until the basic tenets of competition are re-established, the ruck will continue to be a sore on the game.
Other interesting recommendations relate to the line-out. Players will now be allowed to take a quick line-out from anywhere between the point of touch and their own goal-line. This would hopefully facilitate a more exciting spectacle, especially as players would have to take bigger risks than at present if they decided to take a quick line-out. Additionally, a knock-on into touch will give a team the option of having a line-out instead of a normal scrum. With the likelihood that sides will opt for a line-out rather than the scrum, the game will be inevitably quicker and a more enticing prospect for the fans.
There is also talk that changes will potentially be made to the scrum which, while remaining unreformed, has blighted the sport. The frequency of collapsing scrums has scarred rugby, often removing valuable playing time which could otherwise be used for flowing offensive moves. The new recommendation of removing the word 'pause' from the required sequence before the contest is aimed at quickening up the play. Whilst this is a noble idea, there may still be problems that in fact make the scrum more dangerous rather than less. By removing this word, the scrum could descend into a contest of who can react the quickest after 'touch', meaning the opposition front row may not be ready, something which could easily increase the possibility of injury. Although this is obviously speculative, the very fact that it could happen means the relevant authorities should consider such scenarios with appropriate judgement and care.
Each of these recommendations are intended to reform a game which is in desperate need of change. All possess merit and it is easy to comprehend how they should affect the game more positively. This does not mean that problems will not still remain, but by confronting some of these challenges, the authorities have shown their willingness to go with the times. Such an approach should be endorsed.