Late dart at law and disorder

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The Independent Online
THE MOST pervasive principle in sport is the law of unintended consequences. It is certainly so in rugby. The new laws were meant to ensure quick release of the ball: they have given us the driving maul. They were intended to exalt the five-point try: the result was that the Five Nations was dominated by penalty kickers. The laws looked to a more open game: instead the midfield is crowded in defence, while in attack the former 'banging' function of the inside centre is undertaken by a prop such as Victor Ubogu.

In this mythical future - the game that was meant to come about - everyone stayed in an on-side position. In practice, every team with any ambitions have pushed to a fine art those illegal practices which used to be confined largely to New Zealand and the Scottish back row a few seasons ago.

The line-out is a lottery, and depends mainly on the prejudices of whatever referee happens to be in charge. Crooked feeds to the scrum are now commonplace. There is no uniform policing of the law about releasing the ball after a tackle.

I see no reason, for instance, why a player on the ground should not be allowed to scoop the ball upwards or back into the hands of a team-mate. The tackled player is not obstructing anybody and is keeping the game moving. And yet the practice is sometimes inexplicably penalised, as it was when Scotland played New Zealand in the last World Cup.

Again, it seems to be that when a player is brought down within inches of the line, retains possession and, in a second movement, places the ball on or just over the line, he should be allowed the try. I am fully aware that under the laws (which were in operation before the new laws came in) no try can be awarded. To give one, the referee must have recourse to quite artificial concepts such as 'momentum' and 'single movement'.

It would be an acknowledgment of justice and reality to modify the laws to allow a try in such circumstances. The only disadvantage of this course would be that it would deprive many a saloon bar of merry arguments about whether so-and-so 'really' scored. But if referees are exceptionally severe on players who are grounded just short of the line, they exhibit what seems to me a quite manic generosity in their interpretation of 'downward pressure'. How many readers, I wonder, remember the controversy surrounding Gwyn Rowlands's try against England at Twickenham in January 1954?

It was held by many (including even some Welsh supporters) not to have been a try at all. The Cardiff doctor, it was alleged, had omitted to touch down properly. Today, there woud be no disputes whatever.

Tries are even awarded when the player touches down outside the field of play. The video recording clearly demonstrates that, in the County Championship final 10 days ago, Mike Harrison grounded the ball beyond the dead-ball line.

All these errors and inconsistencies, however, become insignificant compared with the domination of the driving and rolling maul. Some seasons ago I argued that the ploy, as perfected by New Zealand, was illegal: first, because players in front of the ball-carrier were offside; second, because the players who were preventing the opposition from getting at the ball were guilty of obstruction; and third, because in the rolling variety the ball was often surreptitiously smuggled forward. The last is still illegal. But the maul has been legalised provided it is 'bound'.

I continue to believe that it is killing the game: not least because, as Jamie Salmon pointed out after Harlequins' defeat by Leicester in the league, there is no defence against it - apart from conceding a penalty by bringing the maul down. I think referees ought now to demand quick release, as they are fully entitled to do, by awarding a scrum to the defending side.

I am now signing off until (DV) next season. My thanks to all my correspondents, particularly to that speedy wing of the 1940s, Canon Gerald Hollis. And if D S 'Tug' Wilson will kindly send me his address, I will send him the cutting he requested.

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