Rugby Union: Confusion reigns over the ground rules: Chris Rea believes that rugby's lawmen have again clouded the issue

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been neither the brightest nor the best of summers for rugby union. There have been spectacular moments - England's blistering 20 minutes in Pretoria, Jean Luc Sadourny's masterly try at Eden Park symbolising all that is good in French rugby, the wondrous Wallabies in full cry against Western Samoa and the All Blacks' spirited comeback in the Bledisloe Cup. But the images of Jon Callard's disfigurement and of Johan le Roux's cannibalism in New Zealand remain gruesomely vivid.

Set against football, which chose the world stage in the United States to demonstrate how a sport can be effectively policed at the highest level, rugby begins the new season some way in arrears. The worst excesses are being perpetrated when players are on the ground. Yet it was only three years ago, during its own World Cup, that the game was hailing the dawn of a new era of control by the referees and player discipline. They were significant factors in the success of the tournament when the edict that players must stay on their feet after the tackle was applied rigidly by the referees and, after their initial consternation, accepted and appreciated by the players.

Since then, the standards of refereeing in this most contentious of areas have dropped alarmingly, particularly in the southern hemisphere where everything it seems is being sacrificed in the frantic search for continuous movement.

Even so, some of the recent law changes inspired by the southern hemisphere countries and aimed at speeding up the play, including the woefully misunderstood 'use it or lose it' directive at the rucks and mauls, have been well intentioned.

Yet this season there are yet more alterations to the laws which will further confuse and confound players, referees and spectators alike. Nor will they do anything to eradicate the problem of players going to ground; indeed they are likely to do just the opposite. Let us first remind ourselves of the most recent instructions at the rucks and mauls. This, in its simplest form, was a directive which has been circulated to club coaches and referees in Scotland - when the ball in a ruck becomes unplayable, a scrummage shall be ordered and the ball put in by the team moving forward immediately prior to the stoppage. When neither team was moving forward or when the referee is unable to determine which team was moving forward, the ball shall be put in by the team moving forward immediately before the formation of the ruck and if no team was moving forward, by the attacking team. Confused? It was certainly too much for the South African referees during England's tour.

The situation at the maul is, if anything, even more fraught with difficulty. Under the new law, the maul will be allowed to continue as long as it moves forward, but immediately it comes to a stop, the team in possession must release the ball either through the hand or by forming a ruck. And this is where the problems start because the player in possession at the maul can go to ground to set up the ruck. This is certain to cause difficulties, for where one player goes with the ball others are sure to follow.

In a perfect world, the team in possession at the advancing maul would release the ball on to the ground before the maul came to a halt and would produce swift, clean possession from an equally dynamic ruck, but rugby is beset by more imperfections than most sports and too much will depend on the ability of the referee and the integrity of the player.