Demystifying the ruck and tackle laws

2007-11-24 00:00

The International Rugby Board, in the wake of the Rugby World Cup, is trying to clarify the ruck and high tackle laws.

What concerned many coaches was when a ruck ends. We all know that when two players of opposing teams bind over the ball on the ground, they form a ruck. The modern game is winning quick possession and clearing out players over the ball who are slowing up the game.

What the initial law did not clarify is when the rucks end. When the two initial players fall over with the arriving players, does the ruck law still apply?

The answer is now a firm yes. The ruck used to end when the ball left the ruck, or went into the in-goal, or when the referee called the ball unplayable as players went off their feet. Now when you go off your feet there are still off-side lines and the team in possession will get more time to get the ball out.

Not that it has vast bearing on the game in itself except that it would imply that a ruck, once started, remains a ruck even when the elements of a ruck are no longer there.

The council has also tinkered with the tackle law. The original interpretation suggested that the tackle would have to start at a level above the line of the shoulders for it to be dangerous. Now a dangerous tackle is effected whenever there is contact above the line of the shoulders at any stage. A tackle that involves arm contact below the line of the shoulders, and with either the neck or the head of the tackled player, is now a dangerous tackle.

This follows just a month after the World Cup where the high tackle was often in the news, particularly in matches involving Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.

Talking about the possible changes, there has been much debate regarding the Experimental Law Variations (ELV) and it has centred, first, on the proposal that the scrum will not be used as frequently to restart the game and, second, the increased role of the touch judges.

But I believe that the steps should have been taken to reduce the number of up-and-unders, a widely used strategy during the Rugby World Cup and, in my opinion, totally over-used.

It began in the opening game between France and Argentina when Puma coach Marcello Loffreda admitted that it was one of the tactics that they were going to use to put pressure on France.

In the 1995 RWC, Kitch Christie’s Springboks used a similar tactic, kicking the ball dead to allow them to receive the 22-metre restart. The success of the tactic heralded a law change the following year that successfully prevented players deliberately kicking the ball over the dead-ball line.

At Stellenbosch, in their hostel rugby, they had a rule that when a player fields a kick cleanly anywhere in the field of play his team is entitled to a free kick. This took the up-and-under and the pointless to-and-fro kicking out of the game. It seems that the law committee missed a chance to include this change in their experimental changes.

The other interesting development in the refereeing fraternity is the establishment of a Referees Academy by Freek Burger, former manager of referees at Saru. The academy, long overdue, will be at the Allan Zondagh Rugby Performance Academy in Riebeeck Wes and the first intake is in the new year.

The Referees Academy, which will be unique in South Africa, will offer professional coaching of referees by Burger himself, the study of the laws and the role of the TMO and touch judging. Practical sessions and video analyses of real matches will form part of the programme, as will sport psychology under Professor Justus Potgieter. All this will be done under one roof, a first for world rugby, and a unique opportunity for those young players whose careers were cut short by injury and want to remain part of the game.

A fortnight ago, we recorded the three-month suspension of two leading rugby referees, Louis Mzomba and Deon van Blommestein, by Saru. Since then, the Western Province Referees’ Society has written a legal letter to Andre Watson, manager of referees at Saru, requesting an explanation of the mysterious circumstances in which these suspensions took place. Apparently the issues raised by the suspended officials have still to be addressed, but it does appear that Mzomba has been placed on the shortlist to become the national coach of referees at Saru. Also on the list are Eugene Daniels (Western Province) and Theuns Naude (Lions).

What is extraordinary is that while an official is serving a public suspension, he can apply for a national coaching position within the fraternity from which he has been banned. Absurd.

•Your views to

•Michael Katzenellenbogen is a former Test referee who lives in Pietermaritzburg.

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