Rugby Union: Ruck law makes no sense

Leicester 33 Gloucester 16
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The Independent Online
`I don't care what the law is, just tell me who the judge is." Like all the best jokes, Roy Cohn's acerbic one-liner contains more than an element of brutal honesty. While there is no evidence that the acid- tongued American attorney ever played rugby for the US Eagles, he might just as easily have been discussing events at Welford Road on Saturday as the reality of life in a federal courtroom.

Forget about the eight foreign players who, depending on your point of view, either graced or infested the finest club arena of them all for Leicester's opening appearance in the new Allied Dunbar Premiership. The protectionist members of the Fran Cotton Fan Club may believe eight to be eight too many, but there are thousands of loyal, lifelong followers of the Tigers who consider themselves downright fortunate to be watching Waisale Serevi, Joel Stransky and Eric Miller indulge their many and varied talents on a weekly basis.

The identity of the real termite gnawing away at the fabric of what is supposed to be a booming spectator sport was exposed in no uncertain terms as Leicester recorded a distinctly flattering 33-16 victory over much- improved Gloucester with an overdue rush of 17 points in the final nine minutes. Yes, you guessed it. We're talking about the ruck. Or, more specifically, the refereeing of the ruck.

For every bewildering flash of twinkle-toed escapology from Serevi, each breathtakingly athletic driving run from Miller and every bone-splintering South Sea Island tackle from Terry Fanolua, Gloucester's Western Samoan centre, there was an outbreak of wholly understandable frustration at the breakdown. Why? Because players of both sides were confused to the point of paralysis. They simply did not know what the law, in the shape of Ed Morrison, expected of them and it is a stone-cold certainty that they will be none the wiser come next weekend.

Do you have to be on your feet to play the ball at the breakdown or can you still burrow away on the floor like Bill Beaumont in his heyday? Do you need to make ground to retain possession or simply place the ball on the deck to ensure advantage at the scrum? Can you use your feet to clear opposition bodies out of the road or is rugby still clad in carpet slippers? Answers on a postcard, please...

It was not Morrison's fault, far from it; he remains the most sympathetic referee on the domestic scene - and on the world scene, come to that - and as usual, he bent over backwards to ensure a spectacle for the 11,000 honest souls who paid good money at the gate. But the rules and regulations surrounding the ruck - rugby's single most important dynamic, the key to its multi-dimensional appeal - are so convoluted as to deny any possibility of consistency. Ten different officials will offer 10 different interpretations of how a tackle ball can be legally recycled and, as a consequence, the game is losing some hard-won credibility.

"We've got total confusion," said Richard Hill, the Gloucester coach. "I'm not clear on what is and what is not permissible at the ruck, the players aren't clear and I don't think the referees are either. They have a hell of a job and they do what they consider to be right, but there is no common theme. They make policy on the hoof and interpret situations as they go along. It's a shambles and there is a desperate need for a meeting between coaches and officials to sort things out."

Hill's was not a lone voice. A week previously, his old clubmate and the current Bath coach Andy Robinson expressed his intention to send a video of his side's match with Newcastle to Steve Lander, another international referee, complete with personal comments on the ruck issue. Suffice to say that Lander's approach was entirely different to Morrison's, and if the law-makers consider that to be progress, it is no better than the progress achieved by equipping cannibals with forks.

Thanks to Miller's forceful ball-carrying and Neil Back's tireless support work, Leicester emerged from the trough of indecision a shade better than the visitors, and, ultimately, their cleaner delivery won them the day. But it took them more than 70 minutes to fully subdue a Gloucester side who, with the deeply impressive Fanolua and the madcap Saint-Andre brothers breathing fresh life into a once pedestrian three-quarter line and Chris Catling continuing his striking progress at full-back, are handily equipped to cause all manner of problems this term.

Indeed, they led 16-13 at half-time, answering Michael Horak's fine early try - the crucial inside pass from Serevi was quite magical in its vision - with an equally good one of their own, Fanolua cleverly delaying his lay-off to allow the looping Mark Mapletoft a straight run to the posts.

But Leicester's rejuvenated front-row were already in command of the scrummage, Martin Johnson was at his bristling best and with Serevi operating as a free-spirited libero, Gloucester found themselves pinned down for long periods of the second half. Stransky, a shade off colour if truth be told, levelled it with his third penalty on 45 minutes and then nudged his side in front nine minutes from time when Morrison pulled up Phil Greening for handling at a ruck.

The England hooker's hands let him down again five minutes later when he contrived to miss Mark Cornwell at a defensive line-out, overthrowing so comprehensively that Back was able to hoover up possession at the rear. Stransky took an unexpected and difficult pass with aplomb and sent Will Greenwood haring through a wrong-footed Gloucester midfield for the wrap- up score.

Their task completed, Leicester added insult to injury in time-honoured style, wrestling Back over following a Johnson two-handed catch at a close- range line-out. The Tigers may not know their way around the ruck at the moment, but they still understand the mechanics of the driving maul.

Scorers: Leicester: Tries: Horak, Greenwood, Back; Conversions: Stransky 3; Penalties: Stransky 4. Gloucester: Try: Mapletoft; Conversion: Mapletoft; Penalties: Mapletoft 2; Drop goal: Mapletoft.

Leicester: M Horak; C Joiner, S Potter, W Greenwood, W Serevi; J Stransky, A Healey (J Hamilton, 77); G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Poole (L Moody, 54), M Corry, E Miller, N Back.

Gloucester: C Catling; R Saint-Andre, T Fanolua, R Tombs, P Saint-Andre; M Mapletoft, S Benton (L Beck, 60); A Windo, P Greening, A Deacon, R Fidler, M Cornwell, P Glanville (capt), S Devereux (E Pearce, 77), N Carter.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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