Cambridge University has this year been one of only two bodies worldwide to trial experimental law changes for the International Rugby Board, the other being Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Using the Colleges’ Cuppers competition, which concluded with a superb match yesterday, the College teams have played under seven potential law changes before reporting on their feasibility and their effect on the game.
These attempts to alter the game follow on from the last set of Experimental Law Variations, which were also trialled in Cambridge in 2008, a year before their full implementation. Several of these, such as the 5m offside line at scrums and the inability to carry the ball back into your 22 before kicking it out on the full, have now been adopted worldwide.
There are seven ELVs in the current cycle, most of which are aimed at speeding the game up and removing unnecessary delays:
(NB: wording in italics is from the iRB; otherwise, wording is that of the author)
1) Unsuccessful end to a ruck – if the ball is clearly won and is at the back of the ruck, the referee may give a call of ‘use it’, at which point the attacking side has 5 seconds to use possession. Failure to do so will be punished with either a scrum, with the non-offending side throwing in, or a free kick for the non-offending side (both sanctions are to be trialled at different stages).
This law is intended to reduce those occasions when a team will eat up the clock by leaving the ball at the back of the ruck and taking a long time to set their next play. It is mostly aimed at the higher level of the game, and should not be used to hurry scrum-halves during normal play, but only to combat what is essentially legal time-wasting.
2) Quick throw-in – a quick throw may be taken anywhere outside the field of play between the line of touch and the player’s goal line.
Many people believe this to be law already. However, in the event that the ball is kicked out on the full from outside the 22, a quick throw may only currently be taken between the point where the ball has crossed the touch line and the throwing-in team’s goal line. This is despite the fact that the point at which the ball has crossed the touchline is not the line of touch if the ball goes out on the full from outside the 22 (the line of touch in this instance being a point level with the place where the ball was kicked). Under this ELV, the quick throw can be taken anywhere up to and including level with where the ball was kicked from i.e. if the ball goes out on the full from outside the 22, a player can collect it and run all the way back to where the lineout would be if the quick throw were not utilised. This will significantly affect the tactics of kick-chases and defending kicks that aim to put the ball into touch.
3) Knock-ons into touch – when the ball goes into touch from a knock-on, the non-offending team may opt for the lineout instead of the scrum, including the option of a quick throw.
In practice, many referees play this law anyway, particularly when scrums are troublesome. However, if the ball is knocked-on and goes into touch the current law states that the scrum must be awarded. This ELV will allow a team with a weaker scrum, or one that simply prefers a lineout, to exercise this option.
4) Forming a scrum – ‘crouch’, ‘touch’, ‘set’ – the referee will now call ‘crouch’, ‘touch’, ‘set’ instead of ‘crouch’, ‘touch’, ‘pause’, ‘engage’.
This law should reduce the amount of time that heavy-set front rowers have to spend in a crouched position before the engagement. It will also introduce a one syllable command for the engagement, which it is hoped will help to manage the hit.
5) Offside at the scrum – when a team has won the ball in a scrum, the scrum half of the other team is offside if both feet are in front of the centre line of the scrum, while the ball is still in the scrum.
This is the most complex of these ELVs. Primarily, it is designed to allow quicker ball from the base of the scrum and to prevent opposition scrum halves from spoiling possession at the back of the set piece. It will also allow skilful back row players to use the ball, even in a retreating scrum. The defending scrum half now has three options at the scrum –
1) to stand 5m from the back foot, with the rest of his backs (in which case he is offside if he gets closer than 5m to the back foot of the scrum);
2) to stand next to the scrum half who is putting in the ball and then to stay there, without moving away from the scrum and, if necessary, retreating as his scrum is pushed backwards;
3) to stand level with the back foot of the scrum, which does allow him to move away from the scum laterally, provided that he does not step in front of the back foot of his scrum.
If he elects option 2, he may move back to the positions detailed in options 1 and 3; however, if he elects option 1, he may not change his mind and approach the scrum. This will lead to a fundamental change in the positioning of scrum halves. There is little point in standing level with the centre of the scrum, so options 1 and 3 will be used almost every time, leading to a new tactical options in how the scrum half is used defensively. It should also introduce quicker, cleaner ball at the base of the scrum for the attacking side to use.
6) Penalty and free kick options – a team awarded a penalty or free kick at a lineout may choose a further lineout, and they will throw-in.
Currently, a team that wins a penalty or free-kick in the lineout must kick the ball out to introduce a further lineout. If a team is pushing for a try with a lineout close to the line, this ELV will mean that they need not waste time punting the ball back into touch for a further lineout. Two further consequences also ensue: it will prevent an attacking team being denied the chance to set up a rolling maul because a defending player has committed a free kick offence; and it will mean that, if a penalty is awarded after time has run out on the clock, the side with the penalty can take the lineout without kicking the ball out, which would end the game.
7) In goal – if a team kicks the ball through their opponents’ in-goal into touch-in-goal or on or over the dead ball line, except by an unsuccessful conversion kick or penalty kick, the defending team has two choices – to have a drop-out; or to have a scrum where the ball was kicked, and they throw in.
This is the same as the current law, but has removed the exception relating to drop goals. Under the ELV, an unsuccessful drop goal which sends the ball over the dead ball line or into touch-in-goal could result in a scrum where the ball was kicked. This will discourage players from attempting speculative drop goals as a way of wasting time at the end of the game – at present, a team which is ahead can hit a speculative drop goal from near the half way line, secure in the knowledge that it will either score or will result in a 22 drop-out, which will at least bring territorial advantage.
There are also further ELVs related to the powers of the Television Match Official, but these were not trialled in Cambridge as such technology is not available. They will be confirmed by the iRB as they are rolled out in the professional game later this year. Meanwhile, none of the Variations is guaranteed to make it into Law – each is simply being trialled and refined at this stage – but it does seem likely that several will be adopted, particularly numbers 1, 2 and 3.