Allan Massie: Safety to the fore in revision of laws

A head injury forced Finn Russell to miss Scotland's Six Nations match with France. Picture: SNS
A head injury forced Finn Russell to miss Scotland's Six Nations match with France. Picture: SNS
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Football is a simple straightforward game and so its laws, which are easily understood by fans, have remained more or less unchanged for ages, only the interpretation of some, such as what constitutes a dangerous or illegal tackle, being revised. But rugby union is so complicated that a periodic review of 
its laws has been deemed necessary, and there will, it seems, be another revision of several of them after this year’s World Cup.

One change, which some may think sensible, won’t be made. This is the reduction in the number of players on the field. It’s quite likely this would already have happened if Rugby League hadn’t long ago become a 13-a-side game. A reduction would be reasonable, if only because players are bigger, stronger and fitter than they used to be, and in consequence there is less space on the field. There is of course a precedent for such a change. When the first international matches were played, there were 20 players on each side.

Over the years most 
revisions have been aimed at making the game more fluent and having the ball in play for longer periods. This is still doubtless a concern. But now it takes second place to consideration of how law revisions can make the game less dangerous. This has been sparked off by the publicity
rightly given to the many cases of concussion, and, more immediately, by deaths – three in France this season – resulting from dangerous tackles.

Every change in the law has unforeseen consequences – things which, I suppose, the legislators should try to anticipate. They have quite rightly been requiring referees to be alert to penalise high and dangerous tackles. They may choose to make any tackle above the nipples or the waist illegal. Yet it has also been reported that more than half the concussions suffered in the tackle affect the tackler, not the ball-carrier. Sometimes this is because of poor technique. Finn Russell was concussed playing for Racing 92 and missed the Scotland-France match; he was concussed because he mistimed a tackle and got his head in front of the ball-carrier’s knees rather than safely behind them. No law can prevent this. Other concussions occur when two players make the tackle, one from either side, and there is a clash of heads. Can you frame a workable law to prevent this? Surely not.

Other concussions occur at the breakdown, perhaps the most controversial area of the game. There is talk of an intention to outlaw jackaling – the practice by which a player on the defending side bends over the tackled player and tries to wrest the ball from him. He does this lawfully, so long as he remains on his feet and “supports his own body weight”. Evidently
he has put himself at risk. Yet the question is: how can you legislate for a fair but safe contest at the breakdown? Such a contest is desirable. It is even necessary because without such a contest it is possible for the team in possession at the tackle point to retain unlimited possession.

The answer may be found in adjusting referees’ interpretation of the law.

In theory the tackled player must release the ball immediately; in practice he rarely does so. In theory releasing the ball as soon as he is put to ground should prevent him from adjusting his position – rolling over so that his body is shielding the ball and making it available to his own side; in practice he is permitted to do this.

Referees have a devilish 
difficult job. Everyone should recognise this. However, in the laudable aim of keeping the game going without too many stoppages, they often seem to turn a blind eye to illegality.

It’s difficult for a spectator, either at the match or watching on TV, to judge angles correctly, but it often seems that players are permitted to enter the contest from the side rather than, as the law requires from behind the hindmost foot of a player already committed to the ruck. Entry from the side also allows him to”take out” a defender, often dangerously.

Legislators enact, but referees rule. A couple of years ago the instruction went out that the ball must be put straight into the scrum (ie in the middle of the tunnel) and that hookers must strike.

For a little while there was some acknowledgement of the decree as, for example, Ali Price discovered to his dismay when he was whistled up for a squint put-in at a scrum five metres from the Scotland line against Wales in Cardiff.
But obedience to the law didn’t last long. Squint put-ins
and non-striking hookers are usual again. Yet, while referees ignore this law, they do whistle when the ball is thrown squint into the 
lineout. Why the difference?

Finally, many, perhaps most, spectators would like to have a clearer understanding of the interpretation of the advantage law, and, in particular a clear statement of when it has been lost. How long should advantage be extended when a team has failed to make good use of it?

Certainly the way this law is frequently applied now seems unfair to a team that has defended resolutely through several phases, only to see their efforts came to nought, when play is brought back for what was almost a forgotten penalty – so long ago was the offence committed.