RFU gives rucking a reprieve

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The Independent Online

Test cricket may be in a state of diplomatic turmoil as a result of the fun and games at the Oval, but rugby union is the sport most profoundly at risk. At least it would have been, but for a late change of tack by Twickenham officials who had been planning to introduce automatic red-card dismissals for any player placing his boot on the body of an opponent during the Premiership campaign, which begins on Saturday week.

Yesterday, the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary officer, Commodore Jeff Blackett, confirmed that traditional rucking would continue to be permitted within the strict guidelines in place last season.

The chorus of "thank heaven for that" from every director of rugby in the country, not to mention the overwhelming majority of senior referees, bordered on the deafening. Had the initiative to outlaw one of the union game's defining characteristics been put into effect, there would have been ructions - not least from the England management, who will attempt to defend the World Cup in France next year against southern-hemisphere teams who have spent much of the current Tri-Nations tournament rucking with renewed vigour.

No serious rugby follower would grant head-kickers and stampers a licence to maim, but they are keen to see a clearing of the tackle area. The breakdown is littered with players who hit the deck to interfere with possession. Without any prospect of being rucked the ball-killers would have a free rein. Now the defenders of the ruck have won the argument, the Premiership at least has an opportunity to lay on dynamic entertainment for crowds expected to exceed last season's record-breaking average of 10,000.

Not that there is complete clarity as the 12 top-flight clubs prepare for the resumption of hostilities. Their laudable efforts to erase one of the great stains on the game, the uncontested scrum, appear to have been scuppered by the International Rugby Board, who insist that any change of law must be delayed until November, when the committee types next meet.

Uncontested scrums, which arise when a team is unable to field a full front row because of injury, were introduced on safety grounds, but have been discredited recently, with weak scrummaging sides using it as a "get out of jail free" card. The French, who enjoy a proper scrum, brought in a measure under which the team responsible for moving to uncontested set-pieces forfeited a player and spent the rest of the match a man down. The result? Not a single incident in the whole of last season's domestic championship.

"We have done our planning on the basis that this system will be used in the Premiership," said Colin High, who manages England's élite referees, "but ultimately, we work for the Rugby Football Union, who are seeking clarification from the IRB. If the RFU direct us otherwise, then we'll do as we're told."

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