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Respect – A two-way thing….

26 February 2020

The inimitable Con Houlihan gave as his considered opinion that a man who would misuse an apostrophe is capable of anything. What would Con have thought of a man who, within the confines of a simple injunction, confuses singular and plural and gets his possessive adjectives all out of kilter? World Rugby’s Law 15 relating to the ruck informs us that “an arriving player must be on their feet”. The grammatical validity of the laws of rugby is not, however, a subject for discussion here. The topic is, rather, the on-field interpretation of some of those laws.

      That Law 15 relating to the ruck might be a good place to start. A ruck, by definition, occurs in the wake of a tackle when players, on their feet and bound to another player, contest a ball which is on the ground. That, at any rate, is the theory of a well-ordered ruck. Alas, this is “the polar opposite of all that is being allowed. Indeed “if anyone proposed a draft law that resembled the situation currently being allowed it would read like a licence to assault”. The ruck, in short, is now “a dangerous combination of sumo and judo”. For those who are beginning to cavil at what they might see as over-embroidered description it will be something of a surprise to learn that all of those words in inverted commas belong to one of the most respected figures in World Rugby refereeing. Owen Doyle is a former Test referee and a former Director of Refereeing within the IRFU and his observations about what is happening on the field of play are, or should be, of intense interest to rugby followers everywhere.

      A player who approaches a ruck at high velocity with head &shoulders dipping below waist level can hardly claim to have an intention of staying on his feet. And when his target is a player who is already on the ground or in a vulnerable crouched position over the ball the result is inevitable. The prospective ruck becomes a ramshackle job-lot of limbs and torsos in which the legal contest for the ball is nullified. Player safety is not at all the only consideration here. The law was constructed with the ambition of seeing the ball transit quickly through the ruck to maintain momentum and to allow those who want to play rugby to do so. The simple fact is that, by definition, it is not possible to ruck against someone who is on the ground. A player who is on the ground is out of the game and his sole imperative is to get back on his feet.

      Let us now consider a law which has been so totally flouted for so long that, when it taken out of the lumber-room in the heat of a recent World Cup match, it brought a torrent of critical abuse upon the head of the man who resurrected it. The problem, of course, was that Mr. Peyper was calling the tune selectively rather than habitually. Obliging more than half of each team to go through the elaborate choreography of crouch-bind-set and then donating the ball gratuitously to one side or other is the stuff of circus and pantomime. But, on rugby pitches, it plays to full houses all season long.

      We are referring, as you will have gathered, to Law 19 which relates to the scrum and which begins with the following brief rationale : “The purpose of a scrum is to restart play with a contest for possession after a minor infringement or stoppage”. But do we get a contest? No, we do not. The law which requires the scrum-half to put the ball in straight is being chronically and shamelessly ignored. Does Owen Doyle have any comment to make on the situation here? “It is now impossible” he says “to understand why the ball is not thrown in straight  –  the scrum-halves are making the referees look pretty dim when they consistently get away with throwing the ball into the second row”.

      In the two instances already evoked (the ruck and the put-in) referees are in denial of the existence of the law. In a third instance, that of the scrum in general, they take, in contrast, an obsessive interest in the law. Or, more precisely, in an anomaly within the law. That part of the law which requires all scrummaging players to maintain a correct bind for the duration of the scrum is a patent contradiction. The scrum, being a physical contest, rarely achieves a point of strict equilibrium. More often than not it delivers dominance in varying degrees to one side or other. How, in the face of increasing pressure, can a prescribed bind be maintained? It can’t. And how, in any event, can a referee keep under surveillance the multiplicity of binds which constitute a scrum? He can’t. The salient point here is that it is not an infringement to be physically inferior. So why the penalty? The baffled rictus of the penalised prop, now a staple image on match-day, asks the same question.

      There was a time, in the not too distant past, when a dominant scrum was seen as an ideal circumstance in which to play rugby. Nowadays we are being exposed to the baleful sight of the ball lying abandoned at the back of a scrum going forward while the side in possession awaits the award of a penalty. A simple instruction from the referee to “Use it !” (he accords himself this facility in other areas) would put an end to the travesty. Owen Doyle rightly asserts that the scrum “was never intended to be a source of creating penalty kick opportunities” and he points to no less a match than the recent World Cup final as an example of where penalties at scrum-time are having a disproportionate influence on the destiny of a match. “Debate is required on this issue” he concludes.

      The intriguing thing about all these observations is that they are not at all novel. Potted versions of them have, for some considerable time, been heard on the Shenick Kop, that elevated bank facing the clubhouse on the far side of the pitch at Holmpatrick. The grizzled cognoscenti who congregate there on match day acknowledge fully the difficulties facing the man with the whistle. Yet they grumble constantly, not always sotto voce, about what they see as systematically aberrant arbitration. When, they wonder, will the refereeing hierarchy come out from behind its wall of inscrutability and pay due heed to Owen Doyle’s broadsides. And when, by the same token, will the ordinary committed supporters of rugby be accorded some semblance of explanation for the practices that currently defeat their understanding. Respect, in their book, is a two-way thing.                                                                                                  –  Dropout

Note  –  ​Quotations attributed to Owen Doyle appeared in his Irish Times articles between June & November 2019