They are coming soon to a rugby ground near you. Undeniably, rugby's new laws are changing the focus of the game and, dare I say, improving it. Structures and playing philosophies honed over a hundred years are hastily being revised in light of the Experimental Law Variations. It will be fascinating to see how the northern-hemisphere teams adapt when the new season begins next month.
On the evidence of this season's Super 14 and (admittedly uncompleted) Tri-Nations, one man more than any in world rugby has fully grasped the implications of the new laws. Robbie Deans proved his assured grasp of them by steering the Crusaders to another Super 14 title, then guiding Australia to wins over South Africa in Perth and New Zealand in Sydney.
Despite New Zealand's win over Australia in the Auckland Test last weekend, a match which proved to the northern hemisphere that you can still play a structured game – even one where kicking is a fundamental part – under the new laws, Deans' stock is soaring high, becausehe is a man with an intrinsic knowledge of the new laws.
He has understood their meaning with greater alacrity than others: the northern hemisphere hardly know the new laws and have snootily dismissed them. This new game requires a tactical mastermind to grasp all the intricacies. For example, Sydney showed clearly that the influence of line-outs will fade if these changes are finally approved. There was plenty of kicking, but little to touch.
Deans has grasped the fact that a long downfield kick and organised chase by a pack of players can earn a side 50 or 60 metres. The key is the chase: Deans is paranoid about his players working as a collective when they chase. By doing so, they present the opponent who has retrieved the ball (and is no longer able to pass back into his own 22 to a colleague, who used to be able to kick to touch on the full) with what should be an impenetrable barrier.
There is one downside to the ELVs; there can be too much aerial ping-pong at times. In a more traditional type of game in Auckland, there were more line-outs and the All Blacks competed fiercely for the opposition's ball, which brought them rich rewards. But it may not always be like that.
Deans understands that the breakdown has become the most important phase of the game. It was no coincidence that Australia, with a genuine fetcher in George Smith, dominated the breakdown against both South Africa and New Zealand. The Springboks conceded 26 turnovers at Perth, the All Blacks 25 at Sydney. Both lost the match as much for that reason as any other. In Auckland last weekend, Richie McCaw was back, Australia conceded 24 turnovers (to eight) and similarly lostthe Test.
Even a partial decline of line-outs may force countries such as South Africa and England to select locks of greater mobility. The more open, flowing game could mitigate against big, heavy locks such as Bakkies Botha.
Two other factors will be critical. The speed at which Australia played the Sydney Test was no one-off, no freak. That will become the norm. It will force fitness levels to rise significantly, especially in the northern hemisphere. The traditional big, lumbering England forwards will start to die out like the dinosaurs. Furthermore, the ability to capitalise on scoring chances will be key. The Springboks had three try-scoring opportunities in the first half at Perth and missed the lot. It proved crucial.
Yet some things have been a surprise. Scrums are becoming more important, because the extra five-metre defensive line offers serious opportunities to attacking sides from first-phase possession. What these new laws demand is that players make decisions on the field on the evidence of what is in front of them. The need to have a rugby brain is going to become of paramount importance; the player who can look, assess and decide will become worth his weight in gold in a game generally with less structure and predictability.
The days when teams could plan and plot what they would do off fifth- or sixth-phase ball may finally be consigned to the rubbish tip of history. For that we must all be grateful. To those, primarily north of the Equator, who say all this is rubbish and will never happen, my suggestion is, get a life. Didn't people say the same about climate change a few years back?Reuse content