Law discussion: Did Ben O’Keeffe get the final Springboks’ maul call correct against Ireland?

Lawrence Nolan
Springboks and Ireland players in action during the Rugby World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and Ireland

Springboks and Ireland players in action during the Rugby World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and Ireland

This week, we’ll have a little look at what happens when players don’t know the laws, the problems for kick chasers and the Rugby World Cup Paris finale.

Charging free-kicks

Samoa were not at their best against Argentina and may well have lost anyway, but in the final reckoning, their fate was sealed early in the game by two incidents, which are well worth a look at from a law perspective.

In the early knockings of the game, Samoa had a scrum inside their 22 and were awarded a seemingly easy exit when Argentina engaged early.

Christian Leali’ifano stepped up to clear into touch, and after waiting a couple of moments, he then holds the ball up in front of his body and sizes up where he will put his clearance kick. Argentina captain Julian Montoya then charges forward, which startles Leali’ifano, who feints to kick, then steps off a few metres to the side before kicking clear. Nic Berry blows his whistle and awards a scrum to Argentina.

The quirk of law is known to some, but not all. Certainly, Leali’ifano was surprised, while it was an alert bit of thinking from the Pumas’ skipper. A good half of the fans around me in the stadium also did not quite understand what had happened.

It’s true that for a penalty, the defending team must retreat ten metres and not move until the ball has been played. But for a free-kick, which is a lesser sanction, the defending team, under law 20.16 and 20.17, have a couple of better options:

Law 20 – Penalty and free kick: Opposing team at a free-kick

16. As soon as the kicker initiates movement to kick, the opposing team may charge and try to prevent the free-kick being taken by tackling the kicker or to block the kick.

17. If the opposing team charge fairly and prevent the free-kick being taken, the kick is disallowed. Play restarts with a scrum at the mark with the opposing team throwing in.

So Leali’ifano, in presenting the ball into the kicking position, gave Montoya the opportunity to charge, and then when he stepped away from the mark he executed the free-kick incorrectly.

But, law 20.2 states that “A penalty or free-kick is taken from where it is awarded or anywhere behind it on a line through the mark and parallel to the touchlines. When a penalty or free-kick is taken at the wrong place, it must be re-taken.” So why the scrum? Because of law 20.17 above.

Because Leali’ifano was prevented from taking the kick correctly by the fair charge of the opposition, the kick was disallowed, and the scrum awarded to Argentina.

From that scrum, Argentina launched the attack, which culminated in a try. A good piece of play, then, by the charger but a very costly error by Leali’ifano, who seemed, along with a number of his colleagues, not to be aware of the laws of the game.

Obstruction at kick-chasing

It was not just Argentina who used this, but this is the most pertinent example as it led to a very unfair yellow card against the unfortunate Duncan Paia’aua early in that game. But many teams are doing this, and it is making receiving a good aerial kick far too easy.

Paia’aua puts a high ball up and gives chase, clearly in with a chance of running to the spot where the ball is likely to land and contesting.

Three Argentinean players in front of the receiver amble towards the receiver and close together about three metres in front of where the ball is set to land, effectively blocking Paia’aua’s path to the ball and leaving him unsighted of the receiver.

Paia’aua pushes his way through the curtain, but unwittingly finds himself right in the path of the receiver, who makes contact with Paia’aua as he catches the ball in the air and then lands off-balance. Paia’aua is yellow-carded for taking the receiver out in the air.

But this business of players closing up to form a wall in front of the receiver is becoming a tactic, an extremely negative one and which potentially contravenes law 9.2 or 9.3 or 9.4, which read:

Law 9: Foul Play – Obstruction

9.2 An offside player must not intentionally obstruct an opponent or interfere with play.

9.3 A player must not intentionally prevent an opponent from tackling or attempting to tackle the ball-carrier.

9.4 A player must not intentionally prevent an opponent from having the opportunity to play the ball, other than by competing for possession.

It is probably the last one which is most pertinent, and we do see it penalised for retreating players who ‘change their line’ and interfere with a kick-chaser sometimes.

Receiving teams have a better potential defence if their players are closer to the receiver, however, as they can simply claim they are there and awaiting the receiver to catch and move so as to offer support. But there is a clear and obvious tactic across many teams now where players are closing together to form an obstructive wall in a co-ordinated fashion; it is especially obvious at restarts.

As well as being against the laws, it also creates potentially dangerous situations such as the one described above; with his view blocked and with his concentration upon manoeuvring past the obstructors, Paia’aua was unable to work out exactly where the kick receiver was, which led to the dangerous tackle.

He was very unfortunate to be yellow-carded; Argentina should have been penalised for obstruction. Hopefully, World Rugby will look at this habit soon and remind officials to be more stringent upon this in the future. And as well as that, it is also giving rise to another moment which would render the tactic more hazardous to teams using it, that of accidental offside.

An England player, having received a kick behind an obstructive wall on Saturday, used the lack of opposition contest to try and run the ball back at the opposition. However, he encountered the same problem as the chasers: bodies in the way. He ran into his team-mate, which should hand a scrum to Chile, in accordance with law 10.5: A player is accidentally offside if the player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate who is carrying the ball. Only if the offending team gains an advantage should play stop. Sanction: Scrum.

But referees seem sometimes loathe to sanction this, as it is often deemed to be immaterial. In this case, however, England were able to launch a counter-attack.

Perhaps if accidental offside were penalised more in these situations, the tactic would be less used, as it is very negative and officiated in the way it currently is; it hands a lot of advantage to the receiving team.

The collapsed maul

Many South Africa fans were frustrated at the finale of Saturday night’s classic, feeling that the ball was available after the final attacking maul of the game had collapsed. Indeed, it seemed clear in live action that Cobus Reinach knew exactly where the ball was and was able, after a couple of seconds of clearing stray limbs out of the way, to pick it out.

So was it blown correctly?

Law 16.17 states that:
A maul ends unsuccessfully when:
The ball becomes unplayable.
The maul collapses (not as a result of foul play).
The maul does not move towards a goal line for longer than five seconds and the ball does not emerge.
The ball-carrier goes to ground and the ball is not immediately available.
The ball is available to be played, the referee has called “use it” and it has not been played within five seconds of the call.

So under law 16.17.b, the call seems to have been the right one: Mr. O’Keeffe simply called the maul collapsed and awarded the scrum to Ireland. And being as the ball was dead, he could also blow the final whistle.

A lot of fans seemed, however, to focus on 16.17.d as above, saying that although the maul was collapsed, the ball was available.

The key word in 16.17.d is ‘immediately’. As mentioned before, although Reinach knew where the ball was and could see it, he had to dig and cajole the ball out for a couple of seconds before taking possession of it.

Not long in anyone’s language, but long enough for it not to be ‘immediate’ under a strict definition of the word.

We have seen referees be a little more lenient with the length of ‘immediate’ in the past, no doubt keen to ensure the ball is played on and the game can flow. That, as many other things, is a question of interpretation.

As are many of the actions of attacking teams at mauls, which can often look like a plethora of technical obstructions and make them almost impossible to defend or officiate at times.

But under law 16.17.b, Mr. O’Keeffe got the call absolutely correct.

READ MORE: South Africa v Ireland: Five takeaways from a brutal Rugby World Cup clash