Loose Pass: Kudos to Wayne Barnes for Stoop push call and a major problem with new ruck law

Lawrence Nolan

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with pioneering refereeing, and a complaint about rucking consistency…

Leading by experience

When the TMO was first introduced, it caused many views of action on the pitch to be distorted. Certainly in terms of foul play, a tackle that was marginally late could look like an act of unspeakable thuggery.

But as the TMO grew in power, we were more and more subjected to moments on the screen of grotesque-looking action in slo-mo technicolour, while more and more players found themselves frustratedly on the receiving end of the match officials as a result of such.

It was Nigel Owens who had picked up on it, and who pioneered the balanced officiating response of asking to first see what the action was he was supposed to be looking at and then asking for said action to be replayed at real-time speed. Many a would-be miscreant got a deserved benefit of the doubt as a result.

So when Wayne Barnes was looking at Leicester lock Callum Green’s shoulder thundering into Harlequins prop Joe Marler’s jaw on Saturday, Loose Pass was already wondering, rather pessimistically, whether Alex Dombrandt’s shove of Marler into the contact would be taken into account or whether the slo-mos of Marler’s crumpled face and twisting neck would dominate the decision, as it did the crowd’s.

It turns out that the pessimism was unfounded – both because Barnes had the stones to make the call and, as it turns out, because of a directive from World Rugby that precisely that action is to be outlawed because of the inherent danger.

We’ve been here before. Not all that long ago, it was de rigueur to create a truck and trailer situation when heading into contact, i.e. with a latcher driving the ball carrier forward from behind before any attempt at a tackle was even being made. It seemed ludicrous to us in terms of welfare: as if tackling one 120kg mastodon wasn’t tough enough, you’d effectively be tackling the weight of two. Owens then was a vocal proponent of doing away with it altogether and tended to be extremely technically strict about officiating it.

World Rugby didn’t get rid of the concept altogether, but it did make it technically much harder to achieve – with a fair bit of input from Owens – as the latcher had to stay on his feet even if the ball carrier was brought to ground. Danger mitigated effectively enough and job done.

So to crack down on similar, a player pushing his ball carrier into contact without latching, is a welcome move, for precisely the reason it was penalised by Barnes on Saturday. Players have a duty of care to their own team-mates as well as to opponents. By pushing Marler, Dombrandt initiated the situation in which Green had no time to react (we’ll acknowledge Green’s body position was not good) and therefore initiated the situation in which the head collision arose. He violated his duty of care to his own team-mate. Penalising that initial action was spot on and we’d offer big dollops of Loose Pass kudos to Barnes for using his experience to identify the action correctly.

Elsewhere among the officials

I watched four games this weekend. After the first one left an impression, I began counting. By the end of the other three I had found 49 instances where attacking ruckers had either gone off their feet or entered a ruck through the side.

A part of the problem is the new law to which only one person has to be present for a ruck. Defending teams facing a well-organised forward pod rarely put anyone in to contest after the tackle has been made; far more efficient to keep a nice flat string of players across the field and wait for a less-organised carry.

Meanwhile, attacking cleaners, meeting nothing to clean, often clean thin air and then flop over. Or, obeying the coaching edict of cleaning beyond and around the ball, get busy going in at peculiar angles to get rid of, or at least hamper, the pillar and post defenders.

Which rarely flaps a defence that is not contesting particularly, but the problem comes when they do try to contest or jackal. Then you get, say, nine phases, in which perhaps half of which the cleaners have gone off their feet or gone in at a skew angle, but because there was no contest it was not whistled. The tenth phase however, is contested. Cleaners go in on the same angles, the same weight distributions. And because of the precedent from the same attacking set, they don’t get penalised.

It happened clear as day for Exeter‘s second try against Saracens and in all of the games I watched. It’s time we get – especially early in matches – referees ensuring cleaners at rucks stay technically honest irrespective of whether the defence contests or not. It may not be material all the time, but when it is, you’d want a referee who could say ‘I told you so all game’ rather than one who doesn’t penalise it because his own precedent dictates that he can’t.

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