From Last Word on Rugby, Kyle Dutton
The new year has brought with it some new rules in Rugby Union, forcing referees to take harder lines, all in an effort to improve safety while allowing the game as we know it to flourish, encouraging running rugby.
Rules, Refs and Running Rugby
Off the back of one of the most successful winning streaks, many teams will be trying to emulate the style of the All Blacks, but will have to keep these subtle rule changes in mind and play to the referees. Having witnessed the first few rounds of rugby this year, what can we expect to see throughout the rest of 2017?
Laws: Potentially game-changing
Apart from some laws being trialed in the South African Varsity Cup, the testing ground for new rules, there have been a few small tweaks made to the punishment of tackle infringements for the rest of the rugby community. These changes may seem subtle but they could have huge bearings on games, as we have seen in some matches already, such as Montpellier vs Leinster in The European Champions Cup and both Fiji vs South Africa fixtures in the Wellington Sevens leg. The reasons behind the changes are well-intentioned as concussion and head-related injuries are now at the forefront of the rugby (and American football thanks to Will Smith’s movie, Concussion) public’s minds.
Any contact with the head, be it accidental or not, could see the player receiving a red card straight away.
Francois Steyn’s indiscretion is shown here.
The aim here is to get players to tackle lower but I’ve seen fewer players knocked out in this type of collision than I have a player getting on the wrong side of a low tackle. Often it is more of a timing issue and a lot more may need to be done at a junior level to combat this. Let’s face it, players are only getting bigger and faster, so there is some work to be done in this space before we see a collision akin to a face-off between a rhino and a buffalo; neither will come out unscathed.
The intention is admirable, since player well-being is at heart, but the referees now have the very difficult and unenviable task of policing this. Already we have seen officials come under fire for their swiftness in brandishing a card, but they are also feeling out these new laws and it may take a while for the dust to settle.
Referees: More respect required
This provides a nice little segway into the performance of Nigel Owens two weekends ago in the Saracens vs Toulon European Champions Cup game. Owens has always impressed with his communication, explanations and general game management. He did get a few calls wrong on the weekend, but the way in which he commands the respect of the players means that everyone just gets on with it. At one point in the first half, Maro Itoje got pinged for clearing a player “too far” over the ruck but the opposition player basically ran backwards, away from his impending clean. Instead of throwing his proverbial toys, as every professional footballer does, Itoje quickly apologized for his indiscretion and the game carried on without so much as a second thought.
As spectators we love seeing this type of interaction, especially when Owens gives a cheeky scrumhalf a full mouthing off for trying to milk a penalty. Many coaches, players and spectators are quick to criticize referees and equally as quick to forget that without them, the game would not go on. There is a thinking that a good referee will hardly get noticed but while this may be true, Owens shows that this is not always the case, and more respect should be shown to these men and women.
If it then comes to pass that these referees are dishing out more than their fair share of Spanish colours, Eddie Jones and some others could start licking their lips. The England Head Coach has often said that more width needs to be created on the field, and if we end up with two or three players off the field, all of a sudden there will be more space in which to work. Will this mean that coaches start planning for such events? Will they alter their bench strategies to accommodate their player most likely to be carded? With the Six Nations now awarding try bonus points for the first time, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a change in strategies from the more discerning coaches.
We will wait and see but I’m all for player safety and more space in which to create try-scoring chances so I’m fairly excited. There are certainly going to be a few difficult decisions to be made by referees, with many crying foul, but let’s give them their due and rather focus on the game. Let there be tries!