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Page last updated at 17:44 GMT, Wednesday, 25 August 2010 18:44 UK

Law tweaks leave Wales set for glory

By Sean Davies

As the new season dawns, Wales are hopeful that a change in the outlook of referees can help them recapture the Grand Slam form of two years ago.

Martyn Williams takes the ball to ground in the 2008 Grand Slam game against France
Martyn Williams in action in the 2008 Grand Slam game against France

Changing interpretations of the law after Wales' 2008 success - notably concerning tacklers competing for the ball at the breakdown - swung the balance towards strong defensive sides, making teams reluctant to run and leading to the ping-pong kicking that has frustrated many for the last year.

That led to another review in December 2009 and - although the International Rugby Board re-stated that there would be no law changes before the 2011 World Cup - they approved new directives that have been implemented by the southern hemisphere sides since the start of their season.

The law directives have particularly affected four areas; a slower engagement process at the scrum; a clampdown on obstruction when mauls are formed from the line-out; a stricter application of the offside rule at rucks, mauls and after kicks; and a complicated re-interpretation of the tackle law.

The breakdown
The offside line
Scrum engagement
Maul formation from line-out

The IRB's head of game analysis Corris Thomas says there has been a huge impact on this year's Tri-Nations.

"The most noticeable thing so far is the number of tries that have been scored," said Thomas, speaking at the halfway stage of the tournament, before last Saturday's win for New Zealand in South Africa.

"Last year, there was an average of three tries and eight penalty goals per game.

"So far this year the tries have exceeded the penalties - it's been a very, very attractive form of rugby.

"In a normal international, you would expect 60-to-65 kicks per game, but the average so far this year is about 35.

"There were only 18 in one of the New Zealand versus Australia games - compare that to the 91 in the 2007 World Cup final."

While Thomas stresses that the attitude of the teams in question has also played a major role in the changes, the new refereeing approach seems to have had a major impact.

In the Tri Nations there have been 40% more passes and 50% more rucks

IRB head of game analysis Corris Thomas

"I think the game has changed for the better," said Wales kicking coach Neil Jenkins.

"We hope it will be more like 2008. We try to keep the ball on the park and play with high intensity.

"If the ball is in play for 40 minutes and above we can burn most of the sides that we play against.

"That's what we want and that's how the game should be played."

While fans are sure to thrill to the extra attacking rugby expected in 2010/11, there is likely to be plentiful barracking of the officials over the interpretation of the following laws concerning the breakdown.

- 15.4(c): The tackler who has gone to ground can, when back on their feet, play the ball from any direction.

- 15.6(c): The tackler who stays on their feet has to release that player and then only play the ball coming from the direction of their own goalline.

Archive, April 2008: Butler's guide to ELVs

There will be a much stricter enforcement of the latter law with regard to the release of a player, stopping a tackler immediately bouncing to his or her feet and 'jackaling' the ball free in the manner perfected by Brian O'Driscoll.

Simple enough? Well, maybe not when you also have to factor in new interpretations of who is a 'tackler' and who is an 'assister'.

Under the old directives, an 'assister' in a double tackle was able to play the ball provided they stayed on their feet.

Now, that player has to release the ball carrier and can only then enter the breakdown through the 'gate' - from the assister's team's side, directly behind the ball and tackled player.

To further muddy the waters, in a one-on-one tackle, if the ball-carrier is put down but the tackler does not follow him or her to the floor then the defender is deemed an 'assister' - meaning there is no 'tackler'!

Ireland v Wales in the 2010 Six Nations
The new directives call for clear definitions of tackler and assister

Cue scratching of heads, arguments, abuse and extra counselling sessions for officials.

But the Tri-Nations certainly seems to have opened up for New Zealand, while the attack-minded Wallabies also overcame world champions South Africa, whose line-out power has been restricted with teams kicking less.

"It's a mixture of several things [not just the law directives]," said Thomas.

"The players didn't like kicking the ball back and fore any more than the spectators.

"Certainly New Zealand have taken the view that possession is really important to them, so why should they kick it away when they have very quick and effective backs who can counter-attack?

"If the ball is not being kicked there are many more passes and many more rucks.

A lot of the kicking was purely because of the tackle area as we were simply afraid to give penalties away

Wales kicking coach Neil Jenkins

"In the Tri-Nations there have been 40% more passes and 50% more rucks.

"Passing more means you are more susceptible to mistakes. There's a premium on catching the ball and not conceding turnovers.

"If there are 50% more rucks then players are tackling 50% more times, so there's additional demands on fitness, strength and so on."

Wales are certainly hopeful that their favoured high-intensity game can again bear the fruit that was harvested so abundantly two years ago.

"[Under the new directives] if you've got the ball you can keep it for longer periods," said Jenkins.

"That suits New Zealand, it suits ourselves, it suits a lot of sides in the world that are good attacking teams.

"When you can keep the ball you're going to cause the opposition problems, defence becomes a lot harder.

"The kicking game is still important, but less than it was.

"We're a running nation, we like to play with the ball in hand and think the laws will suit the guys at the regions when they start in September and, hopefully, Wales from November onwards.

"A lot of the kicking was purely because of the tackle area as we were simply afraid to give penalties away, it was such a congested area.

"All of a sudden now you can keep the ball in play and play with ball in hand.

"It changes the game a lot and it's what everyone wants to see."

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see also
South Africa 22-29 New Zealand
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Gatland slated for 'limited' plan
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Warburton bolsters Wales' options
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No law changes before World Cup
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Wales head back to drawing board
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Rugby bosses ponder law changes
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Wales' rugby fixtures
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Wales rugby results archive
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Coming up next on Scrum V...
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BBC Sport Wales coverage
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