Consensus now favours ELVs

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The Independent Online

Clear signs are emerging that the rugby dice appear to be falling in favour of adopting most of the Experimental Law Variations at the IRB Council’s meeting on the vexed issue in May.

It is my firm understanding that the five leading countries of the world – New Zealand, South Africa, France, Australia and England – are ready to vote for most of the proposals when the matter is discussed by the IRB Council.

As things stand, it is chiefly the Celtic countries, Ireland, Wales and Scotland that are standing out against making the proposals law. Of these, Wales are seen as crucial in possibly being drawn to the side of those in favour. If the Welsh succumb, then Ireland and Scotland will be lost, isolated and certain to be defeated on the issue.

Wales’s position is curious. With an international side keen on running rugby, they stand to gain more than most from the adoption of the ELVs. Yet national coach Warren Gatland admits he is against them and says he sees no real need for change in the game.

But even without the support of the Celtic nations, most of the ELVs could be adopted at the Council meeting. The motion for including them in the game on a permanent basis, possibly with a review after the 2011 Rugby World Cup (an act that could appease the anti brigade) requires a two-thirds majority among the IRB Council.

The eight major rugby playing nations – the three southern hemisphere giants plus France, England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland – each have two votes. The rest, with one vote each, comprise organisations such as FIRA (European Rugby Association), CAR (African Rugby Confederation), ARFU (Asian Rugby Football Union), CONSUR (South American Rugby Confederation), FORU (Oceanic Rugby Unions) and NAWIRA (North America & West Indies Rugby Association).

In addition, individual countries like Japan and Canada also have one vote each.

In all, 26 votes will be cast and for the trialled ELVs to become integrated into the law book, 17 votes will be needed. By current estimates, I understand that those in favour may already be well on the way to securing the necessary numbers for change. NZ, SA, Australia, England and France now seem certain to vote in favour, a total of 10 votes.

Japan and Canada are also said to be in favour and so too is FIRA, CAR and NAWIRA. If those expected votes are confirmed, that would mean the pro ELVs camp would already have 15 votes in the bag, with only two more needed to be certain of victory. The likelihood of Asia or Oceania turning their backs on their geographically closest rugby colleagues would seem miniscule.

Thus, I believe the motion will now gain acceptance at the IRB Council meeting, even though it will not be held until the spring. Two nations who appeared to be uncertain have made up their minds and appear to have swung in favour – England and South Africa. Their stance has undoubtedly influenced other nations and organisations in encouraging them to join most of the powerful rugby nations.

But even if there is now likely to be a majority in favour of adopting these ELVs, a key issue remains. Will the Council go all the way and sanction the most controversial law change, the replacement of full penalties by free kicks or set scrums for the majority of technical offences? This decision will hold the key to the entire debate.

If Council opts out of that one, in reality they will have done little more than tinker with the rules. They will have turned their backs on the one law change that could make a significant difference to the game of the future and open it up as an exciting product for the new audience it seeks.

There is no doubt that there is a significant body of opinion within the IRB in favour of the new laws. But fears have been close to the surface that if accord could not be reached, there might be a ruinous split in world rugby with countries like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa keeping the ELVs they trialled in 2008 but the northern hemisphere sanctioning only the minimum changes which they are currently trying out.

That hoped for accord could yet founder on the individual issue of free kicks/scrums rather than full penalties for a raft of technical offences. Australia in particular does not want to see that element removed from the final equation, believing it holds the key to the entire future of the game. They are probably right, too.

The IRB Council meeting in May will not be straightforward. But it does now appear that those in favour hold the advantage and should prevail.