One week before the June internationals kick off the advantage lies firmly with the hosts. Not only do the Southern Hemisphere giants enjoy home advantage but they also have the added aid of being familiar with a raft of laws that World Rugby has introduced globally from 1 June.
In truth they are more tweaks to existing laws than headline-grabbing changes, but every traditionalist who was worried about the game going down the soccer route – whereby rugby players now fall over as easily as Jurgen Klinsmann once did when in sight of the opposition goal – will be delighted to see one significant alteration: “Play acting or ‘simulation’ is specifically outlawed in the game in a move that formalises resistance to a practice that has been creeping into the game in recent years. Any player who dives or feigns injury in an effort to influence the match officials will be liable for sanction.”
Hallelujah! You could argue that the above is already covered in the catch-all “unsporting behaviour” law but World Rugby is to be commended for highlighting a growing problem within the game. The dying swan act has slowly been creeping into rugby, which used to judge a man on the punch he could take. Players now have to decide whether they want to perform at Murrayfield or the New York Met.
It has been an increasing problem for rugby as professionalism has piled pressure on to players, and that includes getting one of the opposition sent off by fair means or foul. South African superstar Bryan Habana apologised for going down like a sack of spuds after Owen Farrell nudged him in the 2014 Heineken Cup final. Referee Alain Rolland called it a “bit of a dive” at the time and warned Habana about his behaviour but still awarded Toulon a penalty which, under the new laws, could have gone Saracens’ way. Closer to home, Stuart Hogg earned an amusing reprimand from Nigel Owens at Newcastle United’s St James Park during the Rugby World Cup match against South Africa – “come back here in two weeks and play” – after falling a little too dramatically after being “hit” late by Tendai Mtirawira.
Meanwhile, Jonny Sexton’s histrionics helped get Alex Dunbar a yellow card during the Six Nations to the anger of the twitterati.
The Irish stand-off was targeted relentlessly throughout the campaign but that is no excuse for what followed after he was rolled out of the breakdown by the Scotland centre and dumped clumsily on his side. Sexton appealed to the referee, both arms in the air, before remembering to be injured, clutching his head and going to ground.
But the worst example of play acting came from Toulouse winger Yoann Huget, who reacted to a push in his shoulder from Bath’s Horacio Agulla by falling to the floor and clutching his face in January of last year. The referee, George Clancy, penalised something else altogether but, after reviewing the footage numerous times, said nothing and did even less about Huget’s ill-disguised attempt to get a fellow player sent off… which is presumably why World Rugby has acted.
From now on the sanction won’t be humiliation at the hands of a canny referee like Owens but rather a penalty and a potential three points, which should make players adjust their settings accordingly.
Elsewhere the other changes are largely designed to keep the game flowing, especially the one about forming a scrum within 30 seconds because we are growing old watching two opposing scrums readying themselves for battle.
n The replacement of a player injured following foul play does not count as one of the allotted number of replacements available to that team.
n Advantage may be played following a scrum collapse if there is no risk to player safety.
n Teams must be ready to form a scrum within 30 seconds of the scrum being awarded, unless the referee stops the clock for an injury or another stoppage.
n The scrum-half of the team not in possession at a scrum may not move into the space between the flanker and No.8.
n When the ball has been at the No.8’s feet in a stationary scrum for 3-5 seconds, the referee will call “use it” and the attacking team must use the ball immediately.
n The ball can be moved backwards hand-to-hand once the maul has formed. A player is not allowed to move or slide to the back of the maul when he is in possession of the ball and the ripper needs to stay in contact with the jumper until they have transferred the ball.
n At a re-set scrum following a 90-degree wheel, the ball is thrown in by the team that previously threw it in rather than the team not in possession.
This last law is simply designed to make the referee’s task a little easier come scrum time. The difference between an illegal wheel, when one side of the scrum pulls and the other pushes, and a legal wheel, when both sides push but one goes further than the other, can be difficult to spot. Now there is no advantage in wheeling except, perhaps, to push the opposition towards one side of the field rather than the other.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, England have a Test match against Australia in just six days, having had almost no time to bed in the new laws.
Given the importance of the driven maul to England’s game plan, Eddie Jones will hope that the men in white are fast learners.