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Owen Doyle: World Rugby must be aware of unintended consequences in law trials

Antidote to end scourge of kick tennis goes on trial in Super Rugby Pacific

Antoine Dupont is 27 years of age, which makes him about half the age of rugby’s ‘open play offside laws’. These have served the game well, for probably well over 50 years, but the scrumhalf has upset the apple cart by finding some devil in the detail – hence it is now referenced as Dupont’s law. To counteract the resulting dreaded kick tennis which the law innocently enables, Super Rugby Pacific (SRP) will trial an antidote.

First, let’s be clear about what we have at the moment, and that this will continue during the Six Nations. There is no sign of a similar trial being introduced mid-championship. There are two key parts to the current law, and this is how it will be refereed when, for example, Scotland come to visit. Rather than quote the written word, the following practical match situations may help to visualise things somewhat better. But, even so, read carefully.

Part One

Irish players within 10 metres of, say, Finn Russell, who is waiting to catch the ball, must retreat until they are put onside. That happens when their team-mate, probably James Lowe, who has kicked the ball, runs past them. Or, an onside Irish player, who was level or behind Lowe, runs past them.

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Part Two

Conversely, all Irish players who are outside the 10-metre zone do not have to retreat, but cannot move forward until Lowe (or an onside Irish player) runs past them, which puts them onside. They are also put onside when Russell runs five metres, or he passes the ball.


By running or passing, Russell’s own actions have the effect of putting the Irish players onside, thus allowing them back into the game. This is where the bone of contention lies – if Russell does not want to risk running, in case he is tackled and loses possession, he thumps the ball back downfield into Irish territory, and that kick too is returned. Rinse and repeat.

With the okay from World Rugby, the new trial dispenses with the notion that any action by Russell puts Irish players onside. Instead, it requires that all Irish players, including those outside the 10-metre zone, cannot become involved in play until they are put onside under the terms of part one.

There are always unintended consequences in trials, and here’s one we might well see if this were to be implemented in the Six Nations. Imagine that Lowe is isolated in defence and sends a trademark 50-metre howitzer kick deep into Scottish territory. He would then have to run like hell to get all his team-mates onside. In fact, they might well run back towards Lowe to reduce the long distance he has to travel.

Meanwhile, Russell would have a free hand, with a heck of a lot of available space to run through a neutered defence, knowing that nothing he does can put the Irish players onside. A key question which the trial needs to answer is does this provide too great an advantage for Russell, giving him too much time and space to exploit?

The ability to defend is key to the game, and it must be carefully balanced with the ability to attack. The Super Rugby trial definitely weakens defence but it does encourage attack, which is fair enough. But what if Lowe is tackled, or perhaps injured, as he kicks. If he is out of the game, there appears to be no mechanism in the trial for putting Irish players onside, with Russell now having the freedom to do exactly as he pleases.

Finally on this issue of being outside the 10-metre zone. Currently the law rightly provides for Russell making a mistake, for example by knocking-on the ball, or kicking it (and this has always included a miscue) then these Irish players are now onside, back in business. This is a very important element, and hopefully it is not intended to change it.

It is a worthwhile, interesting experiment, and probably will be brought into law in due course, perhaps not quite the version as it’s now written. But one with whatever unintended negative consequences arise, ironed out.

While they’re at it, another area which the lawmakers need to get stuck into is slow ball, which too often is created deliberately at the breakdown. What Ireland want is extremely fast ball, they want it out in less than three seconds, it’s an essential ingredient for a positive attacking game plan.

Infuriatingly, others have a plan which is far removed from Ireland’s. Content to prolong the breakdown, these teams form elongated caterpillar rucks, the ball taking an age to emerge – 20 seconds anybody? The next option is, inevitably, yet another kick, which can start another game of rugby’s version of Wimbledon.

Referees have a crucial role in this area, by stopping teams from illegally protecting possession after a tackle. The caterpillar ruck is facilitated when players prevent any sort of contest. When illegalities are ignored, the defending team commits nobody to the phase, understandably preferring to set their defensive system. The argument that referees are promoting continuity, by effectively allowing players to kill off a contest, holds no water whatsoever. The only thing they are promoting is more kicking.

Finally, an earnest plea to referees at ruck time, call ‘use it’ a lot sooner. It would help us all.