Rugby: Thinking on forward pass is all backwards

2013-07-07 14:00

The fundamental difference between rugby and most other ball-passing games is that in rugby the ball has to be passed backwards.

Whereas in football and hockey, possession of the ball can be transferred to a team-mate ahead of the passer, in rugby the receiver of the ball has to be behind the passer, thus nearer to his own goal line, at the moment the pass is made.

It is central to the laws of the game, yet in recent months few things have puzzled coaches, players, commentators and spectators as much as the “legalisation” of the forward pass.

In New Zealand they have gone as far as describing the 2013 Super 15 as “the year of the forward pass”.

Game after game in which the ball has clearly travelled forward is waved on by match officials to the point that it now seems permissible to throw the ball forward in spite of the description of what constitutes a forward pass – just like the crooked scrum feed, which has not changed in the law book.

It is more proof that rugby administrators have tweaked laws to such an extent – for instance the latest variation to setting a scrum – that the outcomes of games have come down to the subjective opinion of referees.

No longer can a referee hold up his hand and say “I blew the law” – it’s more like “I blew as I was instructed” or, perhaps more pertinently, as I interpreted what I thought I was instructed to do!

When it comes to understanding the guidelines, rugby has veered into cloud cuckoo land and nothing illustrates that more clearly than the confusion as to what constitutes a forward pass.

According to the definition in the International Rugby Board (IRB) law book, “a throw forward occurs when a player throws or passes the ball forward. ‘Forward’ means towards the opposing team’s dead ball line.”

Dead simple, isn’t it? So what could possibly have made it so difficult to understand and rule on?

In this case the lawbreaker is in fact the law maker, caused by the worthies of the IRB venturing into the unintelligible realms of physics and the spreading of an online video (via refereeing bodies and social media) illustrating that when a running player passes the ball it in fact travels forward from the point where it left his hands.

Grid lines one metre apart were used to illustrate this phenomenon and the explanation provided is that the ball travels forward not because the player passes it forward, but simply because he’s running forward.

We are told that “scientists call this relative velocity” and referees have been instructed that they must “judge a forward pass purely on the passing action of the passer (whether his hands were pointing backwards or forwards) and not be influenced by the movement of the ball relative to the ground”.

It’s another instance of officials tinkering with the laws and leaving them open to inconsistent interpretation, rather than unambiguous certainty.

Small wonder they can’t sort out the breakdown.

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