New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship, now branded the Mitre10 Cup. Fans will expect the same quality rugby, as the former ‘ITM Cup’ kicks off this week. But the game on the field will look a little different to what we’ve seen in Super Rugby, as the competition puts in play a set of trial laws this year.
The laws, tested and developed at World Rugby’s laboratory at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University and trialed in their Varsity Cup competition, aim to make the game primarily safer for players. That, and to make it easier for all to understand.
In that vein, New Zealand Rugby has produced a video that aims to help inform and explain these changes.
Law 15 – Tackle
The changes here affect the tackler and all arriving players.
Firstly tacklers – defined in law as any player who brings the ball carrier to ground AND goes to ground themselves – no longer have the rights to get up and play the ball from any direction; they must now either get up or roll away, and if they wish to play the ball the must enter the tackle the same as everyone else.
This is where the second major change is. The ‘gate’ is gone. It has now been replaced by a ‘midpoint’ defined as the point where the two players are in contact with each other and players can enter the tackle area from on their side of an imaginary line that runs parallel to the goal lines through this point.
As under current law, a ‘tackle only’ does not create offside lines and remains general play.
Law 16 – Breakdown
This is the largest change with the current Law 16 – Ruck, thrown out entirely and replaced by a new section and term – ‘Breakdown’.
A breakdown is formed relatively simply; it only requires one player from the attacking team (the team in possession) on their feet with the ball on the ground. That contrasts with the current ruck law, which requires a player from each team to be on their feet and in contact with each other. Creating a breakdown also forms an offside line, whereas under the regular law the same situation does not and is a point of confusion for players and fans alike. This change should clarify that.
As with the current ruck law, the last feet of players who are part of the breakdown defines the offside line for their team.
Arriving players can join the breakdown at any place on their side of the midpoint, rather than onto their last player as currently required.
Major focal point
The major focal point however is on those arriving players – from both sides – that fail to stay on their feet, with the instruction to referees to penalise this action. By keeping players on their feet it eliminates the practice of ‘cleaning-out’, a major cause of injuries in the tackle area, and also raises the height of the contest theoretically leading to quicker, cleaner ball.
Also of note is that once a breakdown forms players are not permitted to use their hands to secure possession. In many respects it is a reversion to the law of a few years ago, before the current practice of allowing a player to keep their hands on provided they were there before the ruck formed was adopted (which was a boon for the likes of McCaw, Pocock, and Warburton). Again this is a safety-driven measure with players contesting the ball on the ground often in a head-down position with their necks exposed, and a target for arriving players cleaning out.
How do defending sides win possession?
The obvious question is that with the laws seemingly so slanted in favour of the team in possession (and the frightening specter of a return the monotonous phase-building ways of Rod MacQueen’s early 2000-era Brumbies), how do defending sides win possession short of forcing an error?
The answer to that is getting players to the breakdown and driving over ball, with the trade-off being that committing numbers there could free up space elsewhere the attackers could exploit if not successful. One-on-one steals remain possible but the player needs to comply with the new laws, and then have the ball up at hip-level before a breakdown forms.
What to look for
Several unions, amongst them Taranaki and Waikato, have been playing under these laws for the duration of their club competitions. Manawatu switched to them midway through there club season. Others including Auckland, Wellington, and Canterbury played under the regular laws. While those sides that have experience with the trial laws might have some advantage, every side will also have players coming back into their squads from Super Rugby. They will need to get themselves up to speed with the changes.
— Mitre10 Cup (@Mitre10Cup) April 5, 2016
So what can we expect? I spoke with a refereeing colleague of mine from Taranaki and their experience was that initially teams in their club competition simply didn’t contest the breakdown as they adapted, and only began to develop their techniques for turning over possession as their season progressed. As to be expected the number of penalties spiked early on, but shortly returned to normal levels as teams adapted.
New opportunities to score
Another aspect to keep an eye on is the taking of quick taps. More akin to the sevens game, as players look to keep the game moving. Whether this continues throughout the competition, as witnessed in trial games or teams revert to a more conventional style, remains to be seen. Senior Editor Scott Hornell believes it will ‘light up’ the eyes of many halfbacks. A man as quick as Bryn Hall (pictured) might fancy his chances whereas on the reverse, the forwards will say “take a breather. Choose the best attacking option.”
While scrum halves and forwards settle into the new trial laws, the flanker may be most affected. The changes immediately impact on primarily the tackle–being aware of how best to remove the risk of being penalized will be key.
In every competition where similar trial laws have been installed, adaptation is the key. It starts with administrators, coaches. Then filters down to assistant coaches/ technical and specialist teams. Then the players are groomed on the positives and negatives–finally, the media and spectators learn to adjust. The end product will prove the benefits of any changes.
So what will we see in the Mitre10 Cup? Certainly some new initiatives, but only time will tell.
Scott MacLean is an active referee with the Wellington Rugby Referees Association and writes for Last Word On Sports from a match officials perspective.
“Main photo credit”