Rugby Union: The law is an asset which will liberate players' skills

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IT'S not much to look at, quite inoffensive really, but it has made coaches curse, frustrated players, bewildered spectators and caused apoplexy amongst scribes and pundits. So what, pray, is this small object of almost everyone's ire? The experimental law at the ruck and maul, of course. And despite its almost unanimous condemnation in Britain, the likelihood is that the International Board will ratify it at their annual meeting in Edinburgh next week.

Good on them] The law, denounced as an ass in this country, has been an asset in the southern hemisphere, particularly in New Zealand where it is seen as the great liberator. Their game now is faster, more open and more entertaining. In other words the law is doing what it was designed to do. Many Australians, although not the national coach, Bob Dwyer, have undergone a similar conversion.

So why not us? Dare I say it, but the new laws have required skills which have been dead and buried in this country since the mid-1970s when no coach was worth a light unless he was a tight forward, and the scrummage was worshipped as all-powerful. And what happened? Our back play fell into such disrepair that even the basic art of beating an opponent all but disappeared. In 1977 the Lions went to New Zealand, scrummed the All Blacks off the park and lost the series. The same happened in South Africa in 1980. By 1983, the New Zealanders' scrummaging had improved so that they were at least on equal terms with the Lions. Their mauling had come on too, they had better backs and in the rucks (which should be even more important under the new law) they were unchallenged. The result was humiliation for the Lions.

In Britain, Scotland, still the best ruckers in Europe, and Wales, still the most naturally gifted, have looked more comfortable with the experiment than the two other home countries, although latterly the Irish profited from it in the negative sense that they took maximum advantage from the referee's confusion in dealing with it.

England have been the slowest and most reluctant to adapt, and perhaps it is being over-generous to suggest that they have even tried. No longer able to sustain their game plan around the scrummage and without the same mauling dynamism of players like Richards, Ackford, Teague and Dooley in their prime, England have been shorn of their greatest strengths. Instead they have had to fall back on skills and techniques long forgotten, and in some cases never taught.

It has not been a pretty sight. Static pile-ups, midfield congestion and an abject failure to accentuate the positive. The oppressive cloud has had the occasional silver lining, though. The England B game against the South Africans at Bristol provided a glorious demonstration of how the laws could be made to work, and it is surely no coincidence that Bath, with their enviably high level of team skills and individual talents, have bucked the trend by scoring more tries this season than last. Nor is it chance that young players like Matt Dawson and Nick Beal, both genuine gems amidst so many fakes, have blossomed this season. They have not been shackled either by the law or by its melancholy effect on the game in this country.

It is only by nurturing such skills, and constantly improving fitness and athleticism, that we will overcome the restrictions imposed by the new law. Then, like the New Zealanders, we may discover the freedom of movement that we have for so long denied ourselves.

Stout supporter that I am of the experimental law, I have to admit that it has had a dismal effect on refereeing standards which, throughout the international championship and at critical times in the domestic game this season, have been woefully inadequate. There have been times when the refereeing of offside at rucks and mauls has been non-existent.

The problem arises because referees have to be so much closer to the ball and are therefore neither visually nor positionally as well- placed to detect players on the fringes who may be offside. One remedy might be to give more power to the touch judges, but how far would that authority extend? Would they deliver offside judgments when they are worse placed than the referee? How would this affect the advantage law? It has to be said that the referees have not been helped in their thankless task by the inability, and in some cases, refusal of players to stay on their feet. Whatever happened to that edict issued before the World Cup?

But the main reason for the decline in refereeing standards is an appointment procedure which is manifestly not working. The Rugby Football Union wants international referees to be appointed on merit rather than by rota. And on the domestic front moves are afoot to restore the grading of referees so that the best officiate at the top games.

Not before time. Had Fred Howard, who refereed a derisory two senior matches before Christmas, been in charge of the so-called showpiece of the League season between Bath and Wasps last month, then we might have been spareda wretched exhibition which set rugby union further back than any law, experimental or otherwise.