Rugby will never be a mass sport so long as referees continue to make decisions which are incomprehensible

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The Independent Online
The game of rugby now finds itself in a strange position. On the one hand, the laws themselves remain as complicated as they ever were, in some respects more so. But, on the other hand, players, administrators and referees are all in their different ways trying to make the game more flowing, more watchable, more suitable for what they hope will be a mass audience in an era of professionalism dominated by television.

Predictably enough, the result has been confusion all round. Forward passes are now ignored if blowing the whistle would interrupt a movement - particularly a movement which has resulted in a try. There were several examples of this indulgence in the Five Nations season that has just ended.

The scrum has also become a penalty-free zone. Or, to be precise, one aspect of the scrum, the crooked feed, has become a regular feature of the game. When did you last see a strike against the head in an international or, for that matter, in the Courage First or Second Divisions? Things have not yet reached the stage they are at in rugby league, where the front rows lean forward at an angle of approximately 60 degrees to the ground and the scrum-half bounces the ball off the outside leg of the loose-head prop. But this is the way they are going.

And yet the laws are clear that a crooked feed is punishable with an indirect free-kick. It has always escaped me quite why a deliberate attempt to gain an unfair advantage should be treated more leniently than, say, failing to release the ball when the tackled player is in no position to do anything of the kind. But even this minor penalty is seldom exacted these days.

In other respects, the scrum is the reverse of penalty-free. Indeed, it has become the most fecund source of a useful three points. Or, if a penalty try is awarded, of seven.

Certainly, defending props will often deliberately collapse a scrum on their own line if they think that thereby they can avoid a pushover try. But as Gerald Davies pointed out last Saturday in what we old journalists have been taught to call Another Newspaper, they do not engage in this practice nearly as much as referees clearly imagine they do. Sometimes the sinners are in the attacking front row. I have even seen a penalty awarded on the defending side's 22 and on its own put-in. What on earth would be the point of collapsing a scrum in these circumstances?

The award of penalty tries has become even more farcical. Ten years ago such scores were rare. Thirty years ago they were more or less non-existent. I remember seeing Terry Price (a great player who sadly never fulfilled himself) virtually taking the head off an opposing wing who was careering down the touchline. All the attacking side got in return was a penalty which, being on the touchline, they duly missed.

Here is another area which urgently needs tidying up: the high or dangerous tackle. It is clear that the old games masters' injunction - "Tackle low, boy" - is not always applicable in the modern game. The ball carrier has to be smothered, turned round, prevented, in the jargon, from "making the ball available". To accomplish this the upper part of the body has to be roughly embraced. So I am not calling for all high tackles to be penalised; merely for some consistency by referees in enforcing the law.

Then there is the line-out. There is always the line-out. The laws now allow for some limited assistance to players in getting off the ground. Most referees interpret this to mean that, short of bringing rocket-launching equipment on to the field, anything goes. Forwards now soar heavenwards like inter-continental ballistic missiles. And, like those weapons, they often miss their target, especially when the ball is thrown to another part of the line entirely.

The theory appears to be that the line-out should go the same way as the scrum in that the ball should be secured by the side doing the throwing- in. But this does not seem to be working out in practice, which is, I suppose, a good thing. Thus, twice this year Newcastle's Doddie Weir and Garath Archer have had the better of Richmond's jumpers.

But rugby will never be a mass sport so long as rucks and mauls remain such a large part of the game and referees continue to make decisions which are incomprehensible even to the most experienced television commentators. The present law puts a premium on killing the ball by preventing it from emerging from a maul. The side that took the ball into the maul and failed to recycle it then has the put-in at the ensuing scrum awarded against them.

It is surely time to return to the old law which decreed that the side going forward should have the put-in. I would, however, go further. The old law also contained the doctrine of the last shove, which meant that a side defending desperately was deemed to be going forward. This would certainly not be brought back.