IRB plans to 'revolutionise' rules of rugby

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The Independent Online

Rugby union will be transformed if a set of radical rule changes proposed by a specialist group of the International Rugby Board, the sport's governing body, is accepted.

The laws study group was asked to suggest changes aimed at speeding up the game and drastically reducing the influence of penalty-kicks. It has responded with a range of proposed law changes including a plan to allow penalties for only two offences in the entire game, foul play and offside. Any other offences would only be penalised by a free-kick or the award of a scrum.

The key proposals concern the breakdown, the most contentious area of the game. In essence, the suggested new rules are an attempt to force players to be more positive, by keeping the ball alive in the tackle, and to reduce the inclination to become involved in a free-for-all at the breakdown.

The proposals would allow players to go to ground at the tackle and after it, and to use their hands at the subsequent breakdown. If the ball became unplayable, the tacklers' team would receive a free-kick. The only offences at the breakdown would be offside and not entering through the "rear gate", with referees to be encouraged to be rigid in their policing of the latter.

The changes to the breakdown laws are just part of a radical package of proposals from a group which includes the Australian World Cup winning coach Rod Macqueen, the former South Africa coach Ian McIntosh, the former France coach Pierre Villepreux and Richie Dixon, a former coach of Scotland.

The IRB supervised a week of testing for the new rules in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and those involved in the trial were astonished by the results.

The average number of tries scored in games increased dramatically, although this would be likely to fall once teams adapted defensively.

Similarly turnovers, which at present average seven a game, rose to 24 in one match before averaging out at between 11 and 15. This answers critics who point out that it has become almost impossible to win the ball against a side in possession that does not make mistakes.

The award of penalty-kicks, by contrast, went down considerably.

Paddy O'Brien, the former Test referee from New Zealand who is now the IRB's referee manager, was closely involved in the South African experiment, and he said: "I am really excited by these proposals. It is still very early days and a lot more work needs to be done on the ideas.

"But I believe it could be a major step forward for the game with the potential, literally, to make it a game of the 21st century. It could revolutionise rugby football," O'Brien suggested.

None of the proposed changes would occur prior to the World Cup in France in September 2007, and O'Brien added: "It is at an embryonic stage."

Part of the reason for the radical extent of these proposals, which will be submitted to the IRB council in due course, is that those asked to undertake the exercise did not include current coaches, thus freeing the group to think "outside the box", as it were.

"Everyone recognises there is a problem at the breakdown," O'Brien said. "All we have done in the past is put an Elastoplast on the wound to cover the problem.

"This time it has been seriously addressed. Our attitude to this and other areas of difficulty was, 'Let's get rid of the cannots, let's deal in can-dos'.

"These proposals are intended in part to help people to understand the game. We are trying to attract a new audience to rugby, yet most people [who watch the game] do not know why the referee blows his whistle so much.

"These ideas are intended to let the players win games, rather than referees, whilst ensuring it remains a game for all shapes and sizes," O'Brien said.

The proposed rule changes

* Defending players will be allowed to collapse a rolling maul, hitherto virtually impossible by legal means. Truck and trailer would no longer be an offence.

* If the ball is passed back into a team's 22-metre area, kicks directly into touch will result in a line-out from where the ball was kicked.

* Touch judges will be charged with specifically policing offside in the threequarters. They will attract the referee's attention to an offence by raising their flag in the direction of the errant team.

* Quick line-out throw-ins need no longer be straight. The ball can be thrown backwards, like a pass.

* The technical infringement of "numbers in a line-out" will be abolished. There will be no limitations on the numbers either side can put into this phase.

* Corner posts will be abolished. Disallowing a try because a player touched the flag before touching down is seen as a disincentive to the desire for more tries.

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