Rugby Union Commentary: Grouse on the menu as penalty count rises: Winners and losers refuse to duck issues

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IT IS a moot point in rugby whether the law is an ass or the players are asses for their ignorance of it. A bit of both, probably, but which ass do we blame when one of the club season's showpieces descends so low that its penalty / free-kick count ascends to a stratospheric 48?

Thus did Bath v Wasps, first v third in the Courage Championship First Division, disappoint 8,000 at the Recreation Ground who drew more excitement as each penalty pushed the total towards an infamous half-century than from much else that occurred.

Bath won the more vital statistic by a conclusive 24-8, their third and biggest victory over Wasps this season. Jonathan Callard, the discarded England full-back, scored two tries and accumulated 21 points despite being almost as out of touch with the boot as the insouciant Phil Hopley, standing in for the resting Rob Andrew, was for Wasps.

And there the recriminations can begin. This game showed that in England the 'new' laws are patently not working, and it has nothing to do with not wanting them to work or not understanding them. The fact is that coaches and players know them all too well, which is precisely why they are not working - because they know all too well how to counteract them.

The ruck / maul law is a chestnut pulled from the fire when the International Rugby Board decided that the team taking the ball into an indeterminate ruck or maul would concede the subsequent scrummage put-in to their opponents. The law was made with the best of attacking intentions: to eliminate the soft option of trudging from scrum to maul to scrum to maul.

Instead, it has had such a profoundly negative impact that tries are becoming a rarity, Saturday's three at Bath being quite out of context with the halting, faltering character of the play. With forwards who would previously have been committed to ruck or maul now fanning out as auxiliary defenders there is less room than ever for attack.

The argument has been rehearsed a thousand times but the law does still remain 'experimental' and, as the IRB annual meeting takes place in a fortnight, it would have done its members a power of good to have seen the talents of so many players being wrecked on the Rec.

The IRB is about to decide whether to remove the word experimental or remove the law. Here is some well-intentioned legislative advice from John Hall, the Bath captain: 'The laws need to be looked at, because there seems to be penalty after penalty in most games now, and a lot of kicks at goal and a lack of tries.'

On such an occasion it was all too easy to blame the referee - and both captains most certainly did. Geraint Davies, a Welshman long since settled in Southport, noted in his defence that generally he awarded only 15 or so penalties per match. 'Do referees opt in or opt out of the laws? What do the powers-that-be want of referees?' he plaintively asked.

Dean Ryan, the Wasps captain, seemed to say he should opt out. 'The fact that there were 48 penalties means there wasn't a sympathy to let the game go. There has to be some sympathy, because you can probably penalise every ruck and line-out in the game.'

Ryan's grouse was firstly that no one had a clue what Davies wanted and secondly that it was about time leading referees were appointed to leading fixtures. (In point of fact Davies, originally from Llanelli, is a senior referee who has been around the upper end of the English game for many years, though only last week he told the Liverpool Referees' Society that he would retire at the end of the season.)

'It had no bearing on this result but it did on the game. Time and time again the top games are refereed by referees who are not up to the standard,' Ryan continued. 'Referees are continually ruining top-class games, which should be given the priority they deserve.'

The poor referee is the only one of the 31 out there who can never win; he is damned if he does and damned if he does not put the horrendous complexity of the laws into effect. This perhaps explains why Ryan and Hall would have welcomed a clearer dialogue with Davies.

'All 30 players were confused,' Ryan moaned. Hall, too, complained: 'As most people know, I like a bit of communication with the referee but I didn't have any. I was just told to get back.' All Ryan managed was insubordination, and for that he was invariably and often penalised.

Davies' riposte was that the tape of his electronic link with television would show him to have been in constant communication. 'I don't go on the field to give penalties and I'm disappointed that players at this level cannot respond to what I'm wanting,' he said.

The game may be best forgotten but in its sporadic lighter moments it produced some decent tries. Ian Sanders worked the blind side with Stuart Barnes for Callard's first and nearly - but not quite - cost the full-back his second by hesitating before putting the ball through Barnes, Adebayo and de Glanville.

An exquisite pass by Huw Davies, together with over-generous defence by Callard and Tony Swift, released Simon Hunter for Wasps' try, and it might well have been more. Wasps' robust physical challenge, notably that of Ryan and the irrepressible Buster White, warranted a narrower final margin, but that awful cliche about playing poorly and still winning was never truer. These days Bath do it all the time.

Bath: Tries Callard 2; Conversion Callard; Penalties Callard 3; Drop goal Barnes. Wasps: Try Hunter; Penalty P Hopley.

Bath: J Callard; A Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Adebayo; S Barnes, I Sanders; D Hilton, G Dawe, J Mallett, N Redman (T Beddow, 24-29), A Reed, J Hall (capt), B Clarke, A Robinson.

Wasps: A Maddock; P Hopley, D Hopley, G Childs, S Hunter; H Davies, S Bates; G Holmes, P Delaney, J Probyn, R Kinsey, M Greenwood, F Emeruwa, D Ryan (capt), M White.

Referee: G Davies (Southport).

(Photograph omitted)