Law discussion: Were the Sharks hard done by after Aphelele Fassi’s air collision?

Lawrence Nolan
Sharks v Gloucester - Challenge Cup Final: Eben Etzebeth reaction and Aphelele Fassi's collision with Ollie Thorley

Did the officials come to the right decision?

This week’s law discussion centres around the obstruction that led to the air collision during Friday evening’s Challenge Cup final between the Sharks and Gloucester.

A tiresome tactic by some teams exploiting a loophole in the law needs to be eradicated.

Minute 37 of the Sharks v Gloucester. Adam Hastings puts up a high restart kick which Aphelele Fassi – very lucky not to have been yellow-carded for taking out Zach Mercer in the air in the opening seconds – rises to claim.

Sharks’ obstruction

In front of him, three Sharks players – Phepsi Buthelezi, Francois Venter and Ethan Hooker, move backwards form their starting points towards the location where the ball is coming down; they are thus on the Gloucester side of the ball. The kick is very high, so all three have plenty of time.

Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley is also heading towards the point where the ball is coming down; again, as the kick is excellent, he has plenty of time to get under it and challenge Fassi.

The trio of Sharks players comes to a sudden halt in front of Fassi, all three in a near-perfect line. The sort of wall Beckham would like to bend it around. Unfortunately, Thorley does not have that luxury or delicacy of touch. Eager to get to the ball and challenge, he thunders into Venter, who in turn crashes into Fassi in the air and tips the full-back over.

Sharks v Gloucester - Challenge Cup final

Referee Mathieu Raynal initially whistles for a penalty, but after watching the replay on the screen, decides at least that Thorley unintentionally caused the mid-air collision and awards a scrum to Gloucester as Fassi spilled the catch when landing.

For us, the right call not to penalise Thorley, but only a scrum to Gloucester?

Let’s take a look at the law.

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The law

Obstruction is governed under Law 9 – Foul play, and is pretty succinct.

Specifically, Law 9.2 states: An offside player must not intentionally obstruct an opponent or interfere with play.

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

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

Meanwhile, under Law 10 – offside and onside in open play, we have these paragraphs:

Law 10.1 says: A player is offside in open play if that player is in front of a team-mate who is carrying the ball or who last played it. An offside player must not interfere with play. This includes: c. Preventing the opposition from playing as they wish.

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The problem with Law 9 – that quirk that probably saved Venter from being penalised – is the word ‘intentionally’. Venter does not change direction, nor does he lean into the contact with Thorley and ‘block’ him actively. While under Law 10 Venter is not yet offside until Fassi plays the ball.

Currently, the received wisdom is that players on the receiving team can move towards the ball where it is falling (we could not find this explicitly among the application guidelines or clarifications on World Rugby’s website, but this is what the commentators of the game informed, as we’ll take them at their word and this is certainly not the first time it has happened and not been penalised so…).

This the trio of Sharks players clearly does as permitted, while Thorley clearly makes an attempt to get to play the ball so referee Raynal’s call was correct. But just as clear is the organised wall of three shirts right in the path of any would-be chaser. The co-ordination of the trio was simply too clean. As referee Raynal identified, Thorley had rights to go for the ball and get past the black wall, but this is what caused the dangerous situation.

 

None of the trio ‘intentionally’ blocks Thorley, nor can they be offside, technically, until Fassi touches the ball. But in any other game situation this is clear obstruction under any of the cited paragraphs in Law 9.

It would be excellent if a new clarification could be added compelling players from the receiving team to either actively play the falling ball or actively retreat from the path of chasers. Collisions will surely still happen, but the sort of co-ordinated obstructive manoeuvre we saw from the Sharks – and see from many other teams – needs outlawing.

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