Allan Massie: Fewer multi-phase pick-and-drives a welcome result of Aussie rule changes

Experiment on kicks for touch will lead to more kicking and more defensive re-organisation
Edinburgh’s Matt Scott grounds the ball as a penalty try is awarded for a high tackle by Jack Carty of Connacht. Picture: SNS/SRUEdinburgh’s Matt Scott grounds the ball as a penalty try is awarded for a high tackle by Jack Carty of Connacht. Picture: SNS/SRU
Edinburgh’s Matt Scott grounds the ball as a penalty try is awarded for a high tackle by Jack Carty of Connacht. Picture: SNS/SRU

Inch by inch we may be returning to normality, with plans for professional players to start training later this month and with the Guinness Pro14’s proposal to stage matches before the end of August. This is all tentative of course, and depends, one assumes, on the continuing fall in the number of reported cases of Covid-19. More good news is that the SRU still hopes that the autumn internationals may be played as arranged.

At present this would be behind closed doors, but if the progressive relaxation of lockdown and other restrictions continues, it is possible – certainly not inconceivable – that a limited number of spectators might be admitted. One would think that, once in the ground, a crowd of 20,000 might be permitted.

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Given that this would be less than a third of Murrayfield’s capacity, social distancing, if still thought necessary, could be observed. The difficulty might be admission to the ground, but this is surely not insuperable. Gates could be opened while turnstiles remained shut.

Meanwhile, New Zealand and Australia are both about to return to action. New Zealand, having been judged clear of the virus, thanks to quick and effective action and to its geographical position, is even sufficiently confident to dispense with the “closed doors” requirement. In both countries there will be only domestic Super Rugby competitions, and in both there will be some experimental tweaking with the Laws.

The most interesting experiment is the Australian revision of the Law relating to kicks for touch. As I understand it, the attacking team will get the throw into the line-out for a kick from their own half which goes into touch in the opposing 22. On the other hand the defending team will be similarly rewarded for a kick from their own 22 which finds touch in the opposing half. There seems to be no proposed distinction between a kick which bounces into touch and one which goes full-toss over the line.

One’s immediate response is that this will lead to more kicking, something that many will deplore. If, however, it means that we have fewer multi-phase pick-and-drives, the ball then recycled for a pick and drive again, this would be rather welcome.

It is always difficult to judge how such revisions of the Laws may work out, for one should always be aware of the great unwritten law that is the law of unforeseen consequences.

Yet these proposals may have one interesting consequence. More touch-kicking would surely lead to a re-organisation of defences in an attempt to guard the touchline, and this might result in there being more space out wide for handling movements. That is to say, the threat of an attacking side’s line-out in your 22 might require you to have a couple of defenders lying deep, which in turn might invite the attacking side to use the space and run the ball rather than kicking it.

Certainly these proposed revisions would provoke thought, and that is usually a good thing.

The Australians also propose to dispense with the mark, and I confess I can see no reason for this. It is not only that the mark has been part of the game almost since rugby was first played. It is also that the mark punishes poor kicks and rewards a brave and skilful defender. Actually an interesting amendment might be to permit a player to make a mark in any part of the field within five metres of the touchline. This would surely mean that there was less box-kicking, and while this would be bad news for many scrum-halves, especially those from Munster and Saracens, it might make for a better game.

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Both New Zealand and Australia seem ready to downgrade the red card, substituting a penalty of 20 minutes in the sin-bin for the present punishment of dismissal for the rest of the match. The reasoning seems to be that most red cards are now given for high tackles, which may be dangerous but are often unintentional and made without malice.

On the face of it, given the IRB’s laudable determination to eliminate high tackling, this may seem a bad idea. On the other hand 20 minutes off the field is a long time, certainly long enough to change the course of a match. Moreover, it’s possible – even, I would say, likely – that referees might be readier to punish the marginal high tackle if the sentence was less severe than it is now.

Paradoxical as it may seem, a lighter sentence, being more certainly imposed, might make the risk of tackling high not worth taking.

Yet , if the red card is to be downgraded in this way, a card of a different colour would surely be needed, for there are offences – deliberate dangerous play – which call for expulsion for the rest of a match.

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