Lions guru on breakdown tweaks: Shrewd Kiwis bending rules to suit them

Hamish Stewart of the Reds is tackled by Dallas McLeod and Jack Goodhue of the Crusaders (Getty).
Hamish Stewart of the Reds is tackled by Dallas McLeod and Jack Goodhue of the Crusaders (Getty).
  • Philip Lemmer, the Lions' breakdown and collisions specialist, wonders whether the Kiwis are subtly trying to convince world rugby to adopt laws that would suit their style of play in future.
  • Past experience has taught that the New Zealanders, particularly in Richie McCaw's heyday, were adept at manipulating a few rules and exploiting them.
  • To be fair though, Super Rugby Aotearoa's changes actually fit in with World Rugby's decade-long drive towards 'cleaner' breakdowns.
  • Lemmer also believes that changes could lead to healthy debate.

New Zealand's shrewd exploitation of rugby laws will be on show again when Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off this weekend.

The domestic-based tournament has implemented much-trumpeted tweaks to the breakdown, which are undeniably designed to speed up play.

Bryce Lawrence, New Zealand Rugby's referee manager, admitted as much, insisting that the area was merely being policed more strictly.

"We're confident we'll see a contest that is faster, fairer, safer and easier to understand."

Back in Doornfontein, where the Lions are assembling at Ellis Park for screening and testing, Philip Lemmer is intrigued.

As one of the rare breakdown specialist coaches in South African franchise rugby currently, the 36-year-old former prop and decorated wrestler can't shake the feeling that it's a broader initiative aimed at steadily convincing the rest of the rugby world to adopt laws thought to inherently suit the New Zealand style of play.

Super Rugby Aotearoa's breakdown tweaks
  • Ball carriers will be allowed only one dynamic movement after being tackled.
  • Crawling, or any secondary movement other than placing or passing, will be penalised.
  • Tacklers will be expected to roll away immediately in the direction of the touchline. This will be a referee’s “number one priority” at the tackle.
  • There will be “extra focus” on the offside line with defenders expected to be “clearly” onside to provide attacking teams more space.

"We'll have to see what happens. But, while they're hardly the exception, if there's one country that knows how to bend rules to suit them, it's the New Zealanders," Lemmer told Sport24.

"It's difficult not to let one's thoughts go that route because of a few historical factors. We saw in Richie McCaw's prime how they manipulated a few rules and in many instances got away with it. It's going to be interesting to see how the New Zealand franchises use these rules for their benefit. 

"From a broader perspective, I do think this initiative prompt us to find even more creative ways of making the game more attractive and that's potentially a positive thing."

In all fairness, the drive towards a less complicated contest on the ground is hardly a new one.

"Lawmakers have always strived for 'clean' breakdowns, where there aren't too many hands that slow down the ball unnecessarily or players being task to spoil," said Lemmer.

"However, whether it's a concern or not, the breakdown is an area that's also quite appealing in terms of a spectacle. If you're the attacking team, you want the quickest possible ball and as the defending team, you want to slow down the ball as much as possible to allow your defenders to get back into position."

Rugby thinkers have never been averse to or incapable of adapting to new laws, but it's likely that a fetcher-type role would have to be adapted, particularly if that player is a key defender too ... at least initially.

For example, would the Sharks' James Venter - unashamedly employed in that capacity in coach Sean Everitt's system - have enough time to complete a tackle, 'clearly' roll away in the direction of the touchline and still contest for the ball? 

That consideration merely emphasises the modern truth that every player on the field should be expected to be an impromptu poacher.

Another factor that will be magnified is winning the collisions, something that naturally appeals to Lemmer given his background as well as being tasked with priming his Lions to hold their own in that regard.

"Dominating a collision is going to be worth its weight in gold," he said.

"Every player is going to fight for every extra inch he can gain, either as defender or attacker. If I, as a tackler, can't quickly contest for the ball, I'm going to have to try and shove the ball-carrier as far back as possible to try and a limit the momentum of the attacking move.

"As an attacker, if I can consistently gain extra running metres, I'll invariably put my team on the front foot because you're then assured of quick ball, especially when the defence has to clearly be on-side before commencing their press. 

"It's really going to be interesting to see how the New Zealanders execute and interpret the new tweaks and how the referees are going to handle it. Their mandate is pretty clear."     

READ | All Blacks: Cheats or masters of gamesmanship?

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