Innovation is what sets rugby union apart from most other sporting codes. Players and coaches want to win. Stakeholders in the modern game want to see more excitement. These two variables create a function that is far from linear. Translated to non-pretentious speak: rugby’s strategies and laws will continue to evolve.
As mentioned in earlier articles, refereeing is about game understanding. Yes, we must read the new laws and also understand the rationale as to why they were re-written. The end game however, always comes down to what we do on a Saturday. I’ll take a shot at creating a few triggers that will allow us to referee to the new laws while trying not get bogged down in overly technical interpretation.
I have decided to solely focus on the changes to the law that will have an impact on how we approach preparing to referee our next game. Please forgive my omission of certain changes. It is purely in the interest of time.
Starting with contact area (as it makes or breaks any game of rugby):
Pre-contact: A player trying to control the ball (having made contact with the ball) is now “in possession of the ball” and can be tackled. This is the interpretation Craig Joubert made very clear in a spirited game a few years back by saying “I can’t let you juggle the ball all the way to the try line.”
Tackle: Tackler must get up and GO THROUGH THEIR SIDE OF THE TACKLE GATE. This will make refereeing simpler. All players play the ball from “the correct side.”
Ruck: After a tackle, one player standing over the ball constitutes a ruck. The only practical change here is that players not involved in the ruck cannot play the “tackle only” strategy. The way we referee the contest (arriving players on the feet may play the ball immediate and must leave it if they area cleared off the ball) is the same. “Survive the cleanout” is still a very effective referee trigger for credible decision making.
Ruck (usually after contact when a player is losing the battle): A player must not kick the ball out of a ruck. The term “backwards motion” applies here.” Keep in mind that swinging a leg around the outside of an opponent as one is losing the contest is still “offside.” I wouldn’t go looking for this, a player kicking the ball out of the ruck in desperation will pretty well jump out at you very clearly.
Scrum: Before the scrum, half back (9/scrum half) can align his left shoulder with the middle line. This will allow him to put the ball towards his side while throwing in straight.
After “set” there is no signal/tap from the referee. Be smart here, boss the tunnel if there are stability issues. Once the scrums have settled and stability exists, the half back will put it in straight away. Note: don’t worry too much about early feed. As long as there is no clear “hit and chase,” the half back will generally not put it in too early or too late. He or she will not want to destabilize his own front row forwards on his own ball.
After the ball goes in there must be a strike. The big change here is that we won’t see any 12 second battle royales at scrum time anymore. One player in the front row of the team putting in must strike for the ball. I had the change of refereeing this scenario in a closed law trial during the 2017 ARC in a match between USA and Uruguay. Everyone was excited for a good scrum battle until I blew my whistle and said “you must strike.” I felt like I had ruined a good scrum. However, the rationale here is that the longer a scrum goes on 9-12-15 seconds, the higher the probability of a collapse and potential injury.
As the ball emerges and is in the second row of the scrum, the number 8 may pick the ball up. Let’s be honest, most of us have been refereeing it this way for years… rationale here is to increase ball in play time. Note: this is not the same picture on the flanker who has a crack at the ball when the ball re-enters the front row after his team is under enormous pressure.
For details regarding the other law trials, have a look at the World Rugby Laws page. It is an excellent resource with video included.