We must halt spread of Spreadbury disease

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The Independent Online
THE ADVANTAGE of writing a column is not that you command any power. If that is what you are after, you will do better as a headmaster, or a bus conductor.

No, the point is, that you can air your views to more people than can be accommodated in a sitting room, in a saloon bar or even in a large- sized lecture theatre.

Television performers, as we know, can reach many more people, millions more. But, as we also know, television is - to put it politely - a more complicated medium.

Last season the penalty try was spreading like a rash. The first red spot had appeared a few seasons before in the University match, when that popular referee Tony Spreadbury awarded Cambridge a try between the posts after persistent infringements by Oxford.

Previously referees had been reluctant to follow this course.

In fact I once saw that great, tragic full-back Terry Price all but decapitate an opposing wing who was careering down the touchline with no one except Price between him and a certain try.

The referee promptly blew up and awarded the attacking side a penalty for a high and dangerous tackle (another part of the game, by the way, which is badly in need of clarification). The angle was acute and the kick was duly missed. Today the attacking side would have had a guaranteed seven points.

Or perhaps not. For the penalty tries I have seen recently, in the post- Spreadbury era, have been for infringements on or just short of the defending side's line: for pulling down a maul, handling in a ruck or, above all, collapsing a scrum.

The precise offence does not invariably need repetition for the penalty try to be awarded. The practice of referees varies in this respect. It is enough, according to the interpretation of some of them, if the attacking side have been camping out on or near their opponents' line for a longish spell.

Others, again, are capable of awarding a penalty try simply for one collapsed scrum.

What law 12B actually says is that "a penalty try shall be awarded between the posts if but for foul play by the defending team a try would probably have been scored, or it would probably have been scored in a more favourable position than that where the ball was grounded".

The law does not mention either persistent infringement or a particular kind of infringement. It talks only about foul play. It also says that the scoring of a try must have been probable.

If an attacking side are going forward at a scrum intending a pushover try, and the defending front row collapse the scrum, a referee is clearly within his rights in awarding a penalty try. However, he must be certain the foul play came from the defending front row. How can he be, unless he is very close indeed to the action - or, as it often is, inaction - and is preferably a former front-row forward himself? Any skilled prop can collapse a scrum so as to secure a guaranteed seven points for his side.

But penalty tries are not always awarded only when the attacking scrum is moving forward, intending a pushover try. Not a bit of it: they are often given when the attacking side, whether at a scrum, a ruck or a maul, are trying to secure the ball for their scrum-half to make such use of as he sees fit. In these circumstances, a try is hardly ever probable. It is even less so today, in an era of ferocious tackling around the scrum and in midfield alike.

But referees are perverting the laws by awarding penalty tries, not for preventing probable tries by means of foul play, but for persistently preventing release of the ball to the attacking side.

I am sorry: but this is not what the law says. The correct course to follow is to do what referees did before the Spreadbury fashion took hold, even though it may be less fashionable now than it was last season. That course is to award the attacking side a simple penalty.

Today this might well lead not to a shot at goal and a probable three points, but to a kick into the corner for a speculative five or seven points. This is another new fashion, created not by referees, but by players - or coaches. I must confess to a certain feeling of satisfaction when the kicker deposits the ball in touch-in-goal or, more seriously for the attacking side, over the dead-ball line.

I still cannot see the purpose of this exercise, unless the attacking side, lacking a Joel Stransky or a Neil Jenkins, are awarded a penalty at or just over the half-way line. If they want to attempt to score a try nearer their opponents' line, what is wrong with a certain possession given by a tap penalty?