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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 December 2006, 17:30 GMT
Rewriting rugby's laws
By Phil Harlow

With a law book running to nearly 150 pages, rugby union does not make life easy for the casual observer.

All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter
The IRB wants to encourage skilful play and a free-flowing game

Try explaining rugby's myriad offences at the breakdown area to your football-loving mate, for starters.

But that may be about to change, thanks to experimental laws formulated by the sport's governing body, the International Rugby Board (IRB).

Trialled by Stellenbosch University students in South Africa, the ideas - which include allowing the use of hands in the ruck and permitting teams to collapse the maul - may alarm purists.

The IRB wants to maximise rugby's appeal to players, fans, sponsors and the media and see these "Stellenbosch laws" as key to that aim.

"We'd be very silly if we didn't realise that, especially since the game went professional, there is a commercial element," IRB committee member Bill Nolan, who is leading the project, told BBC Sport.

And IRB referee manager Paddy O'Brien, one of the brains behind the laws, says the changes are a necessary response to professionalism.

  • Downgrading most penalty offences to free-kicks
  • Allowing handling in the ruck
  • Backs must be 5m behind rear foot at scrum
  • Removing corner flags
  • Permitting defending teams to collapse rolling maul
  • Ball cannot be passed back into 22 and kicked out on the full
  • "Players are fitter, stronger and quicker and therefore the referee's decision-making time gets shorter and shorter," O'Brien told BBC Sport.

    "We wanted to go back to a blank page because we don't believe the laws are keeping up with the modern game.

    "If you read the law book and then watch a match, the game on the field doesn't really reflect the laws.

    "So either you blow the whistle all match and send the spectators out of the ground, or you adapt the laws to the game as it is.

    606 DEBATE: What do you make of these law changes?

    "If I took my wife to some tennis I could explain the basics in five minutes, but I think with rugby union at the moment that's not the case. Some of the laws are becoming unrefereeable.

    "We want to make the game easier to play, coach and referee - and to watch."

    The days of props wandering from one scrum to the next and doing very little else are coming to an end

    IRB committee member Bill Nolan

    The work of O'Brien and former Test coaches Rod Macqueen, Pierre Villepreux, Ian MacIntosh and Richie Dixon is designed to simplify the sport's more obscure rules and promote a faster, more open "product" on the pitch.

    "There's 147 pages in the law book, and the accompanying booklet for players runs to 170 pages," added Nolan.

    "We want this to be a global game. Many laws have evolved as 'cannots' rather than 'cans', and we want to change that and get rid of the subjectivity for the referee."

    Having liked what it has seen at Stellenbosch, the IRB will extend the experiment by applying the laws to Scotland's Super Cup tournament for Premiership teams from January 2007 as well as to competitions in Australia.

    The men behind the changes
    Former Test referee Paddy O'Brien
    Paddy O'Brien: IRB referee manager, ex-Test referee (above)
    Rod Macqueen: Ex-Australia coach
    Ian MacIntosh: Ex-South Africa coach
    Richie Dixon: Ex-Scotland coach
    Pierre Villepreux: Ex-France coach

    "We always have to bear in mind that the laws will apply to all standards of players, from internationals to social players," said Nolan.

    "But everyone will have to become more multi-skilled than they are at present.

    "The days of props wandering from one scrum to the next and doing very little else are coming to an end!"

    Nevertheless, nothing will change before next year's World Cup and the IRB does not expect anything to be in place before 2008 at the earliest.

    So how have the changes affected the way the game is played?

    Stellenbosch University Rugby Club president Jourie Roux says the games played under the experimental laws have been more entertaining.

    "The ball was coming out a lot quicker, and players were much more prepared to run the ball from deep," Roux, whose university has produced 176 Springboks, said.

    "There was a lot less commitment of numbers to rucks - usually only two or three players from each side because that's all that was necessary.

    "Players will definitely have to get fitter to cope with these new laws, and there will be a lot more emphasis on skills.

  • University medical staff recorded every injury to assess whether changes led to increase in injuries
  • In-depth video analysis compiled in around 10% of games
  • Include Test referee Jonathan Kaplin, former England prop Jason Leonard and Springbok stars John Smit and Victor Matfield

    "You often ended up with forwards out on the wing after a few phases having to handle the ball very much like a back."

    Roux said the players and coaches had been so impressed with the changes that the university would stick with them next season, even though the official IRB trial was over.

    "We honestly believe that this is the way the game is going to go," he said.

    "It's making it a better, easier and more enjoyable game."

    And O'Brien had words of comfort for anyone nervous about rugby's future direction.

    "I don't think there's any danger of losing the game's identity," he said.

    "One of the great things about rugby is that it's a game for all shapes and sizes. We're not going to make radical changes."

    New scrummaging law takes force
    17 Nov 06 |  Laws & Equipment
    Rugby's laws remain baffling
    26 Jan 04 |  Rugby Union


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