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Last Updated: Monday, 26 January, 2004, 17:57 GMT
Rugby's laws remain baffling

By Nick Mullins
BBC Sport rugby commentator

How many of us could honestly recite every last letter and punctuation mark on every single page of rugby's law book?

Jonny Wilkinson drops the winning goal in the World Cup final
It can be difficult to explain why Australia didn't stop Jonny?

Who's big enough to admit there is at least a paragraph or two in that labyrinthine tome that remains a dimly lit corner?

I only ask, because a passing conversation I had with a friend over the weekend illustrates just how much more the game needs to do before its new-found fans can talk down the pub with the assuredness of a Tony Spreadbury.

We were re-living England's finest hour in Sydney. She admitted she'd missed the drop goal because tension had got the better of her.

Running the vacuum cleaner around upstairs was having a far less calamitous effect on her heart rate.

When my friend finally got to watch the decisive moment after the match, one question struck her.

If Jonny knew what he was going to do, if we knew what he was going to do and if the Australians knew what he was going to do - why didn't someone jump on him before he got the ball?

It seemed a perfectly reasonable point to her - and it suddenly struck me that if it seemed reasonable to someone who was well-educated and at least semi-literate in sport, then maybe there were millions of others watching and listening that day who had been equally perplexed by Australia's apparent carelessness.

I tried to explain the complexities of offside and even tackling players without the ball, but it soon became clear she'd lost interest.

My brief, Saturday-night skirt around the laws of the game emphasised the job faced by rugby's great and good when they met in New Zealand last week.

I suspect it'll be a while yet before we can all nod in unison and with absolute certainty every time the referee blows his whistle at a scrum

The world's top coaches and administrators spent a couple of days chewing over rugby's biggest topics. It was all there, from decoy runners through rolling substitutes and onto what should and shouldn't lead to a penalty.

That final issue grabbed most of the headlines. Were England and Wilkinson about to be castrated in future by referees who would only blow up for foul play and not those more shady technical offences?

The story may well have been overplayed, but its theme was familiar to many. Essentially, the laws of the game are much too complicated and work needs to be done to make them easier to digest.

It's not a theory I necessarily subscribe to, but it certainly has its supporters.

Genuine confusion even afflicts so-called experts on TV and radio.

I won't name the former Wallaby player on Channel Seven during the World Cup who pronounced confidently that a ball thrown forward wasn't necessarily a forward pass.

If the player had meant it to go backwards then that was apparently okay.

England and Australia prepare for a scrum in the World Cup final
Who knows what happens when the front rows meet?

It prompted a number of late-night phone calls between British reporters to make sure the wily Southerners hadn't slipped something into the rules without us knowing.

And even on Radio Five Live, there was the commentator who was sure a try wouldn't count because there hadn't been any downward pressure on the ball.

It's a common misunderstanding, but the phrase "downward pressure" was taken out of the law book at around the time Prince Obolensky retired. You just need control of the ball.

What all this proves though is if people like us who claim to be regular followers of the game can sometimes get our proverbial knickers in a twist, what hope is there for those just taking up battle with rugby's more baffling points.

I'm not suggesting a pristine copy of the IRB's Laws of the Game ought to replace Harry Potter or whatever as your essential bedtime reading.

But I suspect it'll be a while yet before we can all nod in unison and with absolute certainty every time the referee blows his whistle at a scrum, or a fly-half lines up another drop goal.

IRB propose penalty cut
23 Jan 04  |  Rugby Union

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