There will be lots of evidence to add to the following in the next few months, as the ELVs are tested globally. However, given that I (somewhat inadvertently) have a world exclusive on my hands, I thought it’d be worth sharing my experience of refereeing the ELVs over the past few weeks.
Some of the ELVs trialled in Cambridge will not go forward immediately, notably the scrum offside lines for scrum-halves. It’s the right call to delay this amendment. The referee already has enough to look for at the scrum, without trying to track one of three other offside lines, and it was difficult to do accurately even with miked-up assistant referees.
Not only that, the law lacked definition, even though it was only at the trial stage. It was unclear whether a number 9 at the backfoot of the scrum was able to move laterally across the pitch, rather than remaining by the set piece. The danger is that scrum-halves will simply line up the opposition half-backs and smash them from the backfoot offside line. This would counteract the welcome effects of the 5m offside lines established by the 2009 ELVs.
Of those ELVs that are going global (listed below), the most welcome is the imperative to use the ball at the back of a ruck. Commentators across the board have already hailed the idea, and even some excellent European finals this weekend gave plenty of evidence for its necessity. There is, as many forwards will tell you, great skill in retaining possession in the tight, whether you’re running down the clock or just trying to suck in defenders. What is unacceptable is taking 10 seconds to set up each phase, deliberately steering clear of the skillful but unpredictable contact area.
Some referees in the trial felt that this would be a challenge to enforce, but I don’t think these fears were realised. Referees already have the discretion to rule on an unsuccessful end to a maul in a similar manner, even if they don’t always do it very well. The only caveat for officials is using this law in the right situations. The change is designed to stop cynical time-wasting – it is absolutely not intended to rush scrum-halves in their attacking rhythm if they should pause and look for options. Similarly, it must only be applied when the ball is clearly won: any sort of contest in the ruck should delay a call of ‘use it’. Ultimately, I only used the law when I felt the objective of the scrum-half was to waste time. Encouraging Lee Dickson actually to execute his box kicks would at best be a welcome side-effect.
The other Variations are not of great import, although the quick throw-in rule does demand good awareness from referees and their assistants. It is worth noting a significant advantage of the lineout option, however. Many will feel that this is unnecessary tinkering, but its real impact comes near the end of a game.
Picture this scenario: time is up on the clock, and red are defending a 5m lineout and a 5 point lead. If red concede a penalty by dragging down the lineout, inadvertently or deliberately, the opposition has almost no subsequent options for setting up a rolling maul, potentially their best chance of getting over the tryline. Kicking the ball out, even from a penalty, would end the game if normal time has ended. Red have thus successfully staved off their opponent’s most potent attacking weapon through an act of illegality. This may be a rare and specific occurrence but it only needs to happen once to have happened too many times. The change is a good one.
Overall, then, the ELVs are a good package. They speed up the game, the players seem to have enjoyed them and they are unproblematic for officials. It remains to be seen whether professional trials confirm or undermine the positive impression they made on me and the players I talked to.
A note on the scrum engagement
The proposed change to the engagement sequence has been neither rejected nor scheduled for wider trials – it instead goes to the specialist Scrum Steering Group. The impetus behind it comes from New Zealand, where they feel that a one-word engagement command will make the timing of the hit easier. There has also been widespread concern that the ‘pause’ phase places great strain on the massive front rowers of the modern game, increasing the chance of errors at the point of engagement.
I agree in principal with both points, although ‘engage’ has never seemed the root of the scrum’s problems. It does, however, appear that the pause creates instability and places unreasonable demands on bigger props, and it also seems a touch unnecessary given the natural pauses between each phase of the engagement sequence. Despite agreeing in principal, however, I remain unconvinced that ‘set’ is the right replacement. The sibilant S does not give the command a clean beginning and it lacks clarity, which was reflected in several early engagements in the matches I officiated. Alternatives are hard to come by (I’ve heard everything from ‘hit’ to ‘kiss’ suggested) but I would not endorse ‘set’ after the recent trial.
I would also like to include the following verbatim, from Nick Marshall, a Cambridge University prop (level 4): “The thing about the pause is that it gives a split second in which you have to exercise the utmost control and technical skill to get the timing right. This is what allows you to beat the other team to the engagement. People don’t realise it, but that ability is something that the pack as individuals and as a whole have to master; a good pack holds itself in the pause and gauges it just right to beat the opposition to it. Obviously the new sequence is something one could get used to, but I personally feel the cadence of four words is better than that of three.”
Interesting stuff, and a model of articulacy for fellow front rowers. The debate continues….
ELVs to be trialled globally in 2012/3
1. Law 16.7 (Ruck): The ball has to be used within five seconds of it being made available at the back of a ruck with a warning from the referee to “use it”. Sanction – Scrum.
2. 19.2 (b) (Quick Throw-In) For a quick throw in, the player may be anywhere outside the field of play between the line of touch and the player’s goal line.
3. 19.4 (who throws in) When the ball goes into touch from a knock-on, the non-offending team will be offered the choice of a lineout at the point the ball crossed the touch line; or a scrum at the place of the knock-on. The non-offending team may exercise this option by taking a quick throw-in.
4. 21.4 Penalty and free kick options and requirements: Lineout alternative. A team awarded a penalty or a free kick at a lineout may choose a further lineout, they throw in. This is in addition to the scrum option.
5. A conversion kick must be completed within one minute 30 seconds from the time that a try has been awarded.