Six Nations to be testing ground for law changes

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It could have been a major catastrophe, but yesterday's meeting of rugby union's governing body in Dublin resulted in nothing worse than a minor calamity. The sport in the British Isles next season will bear a strong resemblance to the one that has attracted unprecedented interest this season, but those fighting the good fight against wholesale law changes that threaten to undermine the most cherished fundamentals of the 15-man code have plenty of battles ahead of them. Bad ideas may be rejected, but they never die.

The 28-man council of the International Rugby Board, 26 of whom had a vote, gave their backing to 13 of the 23 "Experimental Law Variations" proposed by a high-powered "project group" consisting largely of former international coaches (as opposed to current ones). Their decision means the new laws, including controversial regulations covering the line-out and the maul, will be trialled throughout the world from the beginning of August and feature in the Guinness Premiership, the Heineken Cup, the Six Nations Championship and the 2009 Lions series in South Africa.

Once the evidence of their effect has been gathered, analysed and digested, the council will revisit the subject in November of next year and formally decide whether to put them on rugby's version of the statute book. Sceptics believe there is almost zero chance of the new laws being thrown out less than two years before the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Premiership coaches and directors of rugby were passionately against the general thrust of the ELVs as well as many of the specifics, but they were relieved to hear that the two most extreme proposals – the legalisation of handling in the ruck and a move to put the free kick ahead of the scrum as the principle means of restarting a game – failed to win sufficient support for inclusion in the August package.

Happily, the ruck law and associated tinkerings, including a spectacularly bone-headed plan to establish an immediate offside line at every tackle, has, in IRB speak, been "referred back for further analysis and possible experimentation". In other words, there is no possibility of these measures being introduced in time for the 2011 World Cup. However, the free kick frenzy will be given air in an as-yet unidentified elite northern hemisphere competition next season, so those who see this development in a negative light will have to continue to make a case at every opportunity.

According to IRB insiders, the EDF Energy Cup is favourite to be turned into a free-kick laboratory. From the board's perspective, it would make more sense to use the European Challenge Cup, boasting as it does teams from a majority of the major northern hemisphere nations, rather than use a more restricted Anglo-Welsh tournament.

The IRB went out of its way to put a positive spin on the outcome of its deliberations, which saw the three biggest unions in the British Isles – England, Wales and Ireland – holding the line against the most enthusiastic supporters of change, led by Australia.

"Council's decision to implement a global trial of ELVs represents an important milestone for the future of the game," said the new chairman, Bernard Lapasset of France. "It vindicates the process... Not one of the council representatives was against the global implementation of an ELV programme of some description.

"Many of the ELVs received unanimous approval as they had clearly shown the potential to be beneficial to the game." And what of the measures for which the welcome was so far from unanimous that they were put on the back burner or shelved completely? "Members did not dismiss them outright, but believed further consideration and trial was necessary." Okay, have it your way.

Some of the changes scheduled for next term are likely to work perfectly well: the new five-metre offside line at the scrum; the decree that there should be no gain of ground if the ball is passed back into the 22 and then kicked into touch on the full. But there is deep concern over measures affecting line-out and maul. Coaches and players spend months perfecting routines in these areas. If they end up being devalued, as many fear, two of the game's defining characteristics will slowly fade from view.

In a survey carried out by the Rugby Football Union, around 80 per cent of those replying were against the idea that a maul could be pulled down deliberately, and something in the region of 70 per cent objected to the more radical alterations to line-out regulations. This was not the riposte of a disgruntled minority, either. As of Wednesday, there had been more than 13,000 respondents – an unprecedented number, according to the survey organisers, and proof positive that the union game matters deeply to people who live their sporting lives way outside the IRB bubble.

Ruck and roll: Success and failure in world of ELVs

Changes to be trialled worldwide include:

* Players can defend a maul by pulling it down.

* Introduction of an offside line five metres behind the hindmost feet of the scrum.

* No restriction on number of players who can be in a lineout from either side (minimum of two).

* The receiver in a lineout must stand two metres back from the lineout.

Further ELVs to be trialled in an elite northern hemisphere competition include:

* For all offences other than offside, not entering through the gate, and Law 10 – Foul Play – the sanction is a free kick.

* If the ball is unplayable at the breakdown, the side that did not take the ball into contact will receive a free kick.

* If a maul becomes unplayable, the team not in possession at the start of the maul receives a free kick.

ELVs referred back for discussion include:

* Offside line occurs immediately at the tackle; Players who are on their feet can play the ball with their hands.