Blind stupidity is nine-tenths of the new law

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The Independent Online

Before crumbling in the second half of their Premiership match against Saracens, Sale thought they had taken the lead with a perfectly good try. To the dismay of most observers at Heywood Road the score was disallowed, and the reason for this was made clear by the arm signals of the referee: "Crossing", the new buzz-word for obstruction. What is equally clear is that this freshly-minted law is an ass.

Before crumbling in the second half of their Premiership match against Saracens, Sale thought they had taken the lead with a perfectly good try. To the dismay of most observers at Heywood Road the score was disallowed, and the reason for this was made clear by the arm signals of the referee: "Crossing", the new buzz-word for obstruction. What is equally clear is that this freshly-minted law is an ass.

It is designed to prevent dummy runners from protecting the ball-carrier by obstructing defenders, but the result is that many of the best-laid plans of attacking sides are being destroyed, and legal as well as illegal moves penalised. It is extremely difficult for a referee to differentiate between the two.

A recurring theme of this season has been the sight of ingenious, well-rehearsed attacks stopped in their tracks for so-called crossing, and it is frustrating not only for the players and coaches but for the spectators. Defences are difficult enough to break down as it is without the introduction of a law that stifles innovation and allows referees little or no discretion.

When are sides guilty of crossing and when are they pulling off brilliant acts of deception? At Sale, the try that wasn't involved the stand-off Nicki Little looping outside his inside centre, who passed the ball behind the outside centre (the decoy) back to Little, who went clean through. The referee, Robin Goodliffe, awarded Saracens a penalty.

"If the move doesn't interfere with the defence then there shouldn't be a problem," Adrian Hadley, Sale's director of rugby, said. "The centre didn't take anybody out and Nicki just went through a gap."

There have always been measures to deal with obstruction (although mass cases of it at rucks and mauls are ignored) but the new law was introduced by the International Board in August at the behest of France, who complained that southern-hemisphere sides, in particular Australia, had perfected three-quarter moves which blocked would-be tacklers. "The problem," said one leading referee, "is that the law is abysmally constructed. There are so many facets that could be determined as obstructing. It's a real muddle."

Nick Bunting, the Rugby Football Union's national referee development officer, sympathises with the referees and has sought clarification from the IB. "There are a number of opportunities to improve the process and we are looking to see how this can be done," Bunting said. "In Australia it is felt that most of their use of space is done to block players in midfield. It has clearlycreated a different thought process among the coaches."

As it stands, obstruction is called when a player runs in front of the ball-carrier, preventing an opponent from making a tackle, or from playing the ball. The Bath-Saracens match last weekend was inter-rupted by several penalty awards for crossing, Ed Morrison, one of England's full-time referees, incurring the wrath of both sets of supporters.

When Kevin Maggs did a pivot in midfield, turning his back to the opposition, he passed to Dan Lyle, who was looping outside him. At the same time Ben Clarke ran straight across Lyle's line. "I was put into a gap which was partly created by Ben and I think the referee was right to call obstruction," Lyle said. "But there was another time when he was wrong."

That occurred when Phil de Glanville made a dummy run, the ball was passed behind him and play moved out wide. "He should have stopped running forward," Bunting said, "but he carried on and made contact with two defenders. If he hadn't made contact he wouldn't have been penalised." Most observers at the Recreation Ground felt that De Glanville was falsely charged.

In another incident, the Saracens wing Dan Luger, in possession, was moving left when Ben Johnston, running right, crossed in front of him, ostensibly to take a short ball. Luger, still with ball in his hands, was tackled and Johnston, who didn't touch anyone, was penalised.

"I think they were all harsh calls," François Pienaar of Saracens said. "We try to use optional runners who may or may not get the ball. How the defence reacts is also a factor. If our decoy is running at an angle there should be no interference with the defence. It's a difficult thing to monitor."

Saracens should have been forewarned. At their own request they had a pre-season briefing by a referee on the subject of crossing, and the man who briefed them was none other than Morrison.

"There's no clear definition," Lyle said. "I don't see anything wrong with guys running dummy lines. It gives you attacking options but these are now being taken away. They should be looking at other areas of the game, like guys flying into rucks and mauls with intent to hurt people."

Mark Tainton, who coaches the Bristol backs, believes defenders are exploiting the law. "They start screaming blue murder when an elaborate attack is launched. They wave their arms about shouting 'Obstruction' and referees fall for it. It has almost reached the point where you could take the negative approach and tell a defender to run into somebody knowing you will be awarded a penalty.

"All we are trying to do is create space and open up the game. These mis-moves were designed to counter the drift defence. Instead we are seeing stop-start rugby which is handicapping attacking sides."

Penalty goals rather than tries continue to dominate the scoring, and on the evidence so far the law relating to obstruction or crossing is adding to the imbalance. As Bunting points out, any team-mate in front of the ball-carrier is in the "danger zone". When complex moves are executed, referees are in no position to discriminate. Once one move is outlawed they are all outlawed. There could be further confusion when England play Australia, Argentina and South Africa next month.

When the IB conduct their next review in March it is expected that the law will at least be reworded. In the meantime, the game itself is being sold a dummy.

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