The second weekend of the Rugby World Cup exposed small caveats in the laws from quick line-outs, counter-rucks, Falcons and, bought dummies.
None of the following ought to be particularly news to more hardened rugby followers, yet for each of the following examples at the weekend, there were observers, even just within my own personal watching sphere, who did not know the minutiae.
So it’s worth taking some short looks at each one, as well as taking a further look at one poor chap who was especially unfortunate to be disciplined.
Australia gained a bonus point in defeat to Fiji and, for a long time, were within striking distance, courtesy of a try born of quick thinking by Australia’s Fijian-heritage duo of Samu Kerevi and Mark Nawaqanitawase.
It took a while for the stills of the moment where Kerevi quite clearly receives the ball inside the 5m line to emerge, while there was significant wailing and gnashing of teeth when the TMO refused to have a closer look at Rory Arnold playing the ball on the ground at the preceding ruck.
But another observer next to me was cross for a different reason. “It shouldn’t have been a quick line-out,” he said. “The ball touched the advertising hoardings. Don’t they look at anything?”
The relevant law is Law 18.5, Touch, quick throw and line-out, which states that: “A quick throw is disallowed and a line-out is awarded to the same team if:
1. A line-out had already been formed; or
2. The ball had been touched after it went into touch by anyone other than the player throwing in or the player who carried the ball into touch; or
3. A different ball is used from the one that originally went into touch.
There was controversy over part 3 in an Ireland-Scotland game earlier this year and a Wales-Ireland game 12 years ago. Wales scored a try from a quick line-out after using a different ball, which was in the days before TMO and not picked up by officials in 2011, while an Irish try scored off an errant quick Scottish line-out this year was disallowed after Scotland quickly owned up to having used the wrong ball!
There’s also been controversy over part 2 in the past, with Harlequins substitute Will Skinner once memorably red-carded from the bench for touching the ball to prevent Maxime Medard from taking a quick throw in a Heineken Cup tie.
More recently, Clermont fly-half Benjamin Urdapileta was enraged at Ronan O’Gara ‘not getting out of the way actively’ and having the ball hit his head to prevent Urdapileta from taking a quick throw in a Top 14 match.
But there is no mention of advertising hoardings, so this aspect of Australia’s try, at least, is legal.
However, perhaps it is something the lawmakers might like to take a look at. The rule stipulating no person should touch the ball was designed to stop non-neutrals on the sideline from interfering to give an advantage and returning a ball in touch unnaturally quickly.
But surely an advertising hoarding is also an unnatural object that does this as well? The art of the quick throw lies in the player catching the ball just in touch and his supporters being well-placed to restart the game quickly, but if a quick throw can also rest on the good fortune of a handily-placed advertising hoarding… well, maybe the sponsors are having too much of an effect on the game again…
There was enough indignance at the disallowing of Sekou Macalou’s potential bonus-point try for France last Thursday for one of the TV broadcasters to make a full studio demo of the decision to explain it – not only informative but also giving a little laugh at the sight of Fulgence Ouedraogo being ‘counter-rucked’ by Marjorie Mayans.
But penalties against counter-rucking teams are becoming quite numerous. Why?
Counter-rucking is quite an achievement. You are generally required to push players backwards who are moving forwards with the confidence that pre-prepared patterns can provide, in itself pretty impressive. But once you have won the contest for the space over the ball, there are still a number of things to get right.
Primarily, penalties are being blown against counter-rucking teams who get over the ball and knock their opponents backwards, but then fall off their feet over the ball doing so.
Law 15.16.d says that players must not “fall onto, or over, the emerging ball while it is on the ground near to the ruck.”
So these penalties are right, but they seem a little harsh when you consider how often this happens with attacking ruckers in a normal ruck.
Anyway, that was not Macalou’s problem. Macalou wrestled his opponent off the ball and booted the ball forward as he did so, thus running foul of law 15.16.e: “During a ruck, players must not kick, or attempt to kick, a ball out of a ruck.”
Sort of fair enough, but there’s an anomaly here from law 15.14: “During a ruck, players may play the ball with their feet, provided they do so in a safe manner.”
It’s worth noting that France and Macalou’s counter-ruck was so thorough that by the time he booted the ball, it was only he and his opponent left wrestling on feet over the ball.
Law 15.16.e was introduced as a safety measure to stop flying boots among limbs and heads on the ground at a ruck, but with nobody even vaguely near the ball on the ground when Macalou kicked it, surely here he was, in fact, playing the ball with his feet in a safe manner?
Another of those odd rugby moments when the law as it is negates something it was never intended to negate – and it cost France a bonus point. Meanwhile, it seems that the major benefit from Law 15.14 is to make it easier for scrum-halves to get caterpillars formed and have clean possession before booting the ball, hardly as positive a piece of play as Macalou’s!
The Marler Falcon
By now, we’ve probably all seen Joe Marler’s light attempt to attribute his near-post flick-on header to the English football team’s inspirational strategy (we’re not sure which team kicks the ball forward more often sometimes, the rugby or soccer team), but there were enough boos among the masses in Nice that it is possible many do not know so well what exactly is a knock-on and what does not.
Let’s start with the knock-on definition: “When a player loses possession of the ball and it goes forward, or when a player hits the ball forward with the hand or arm, or when the ball hits the hand or arm and goes forward, and the ball touches the ground or another player before the original player can catch it.”
This is important because it not only excludes the head, but also the torso, hips, legs and everything else other than the arms and hands.
Then, the ball needs to go forward – meaning beyond the 180-degree plane running parallel to the opposition goal-line.
This doesn’t always happen, but a knock-on is often blown anyway. Willie le Roux always thinks the world is against him, but he got a genuinely duff call on Saturday when he spilt a high ball which bounced sideways away from him but was still called as having knocked on; many knock-ons that are not knock-ons are called in this situation. A dropped pass/high ball is not automatically a knock-on.
Marler headed the ball – the ball headed Marler, really – because Will Stuart had mishandled a pass, but the contact off Stuart’s arm also clearly propelled the ball backwards, as referee Nika Amashukeli explicitly noted.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) September 18, 2023
The boos in Nice suggest that the minutiae of knock-ons are not well-known enough, perhaps in part because knock-ons are called too easily.
As an aside, what Marler did is known as a Falcon in Australia, attributed to a pass in a rugby league game from scrum-half to fly-half which thundered into the head of Mario Fenech, born in Malta and thus nicknamed the Maltese Falcon and who was leaving the pitch injured at the time.
That alone might not have been reason enough to name the piece of play, but Fenech was infuriated that the moment made it onto the TV highlights reel and took umbrage with the producer responsible, putting the chap in a headlock and issuing some choice personal threats. Marler’s reaction was somewhat better.
Or, in English, let the buyer beware. Easy to enforce in retail, but more complicated when you sell someone a textbook dummy.
Inaki Ayarza’s dummy to Ulupano Seuteni was so good that most of the masses gathered around the screen in Nice were momentarily convinced that Ayarza had actually delivered a hospital pass. As it turned out, Ayarza simply scorched further ahead while Seuteni was attempting to extricate himself from the opponent he would have sworn to the grave had been in possession of the ball when he made the tackle.
When Seuteni’s tackle was reviewed, several things were clear, beyond the quality of the dummy. But most pertinently, Seuteni clearly, upon realising what had happened, pulled out of the tackle about three-quarters of the way through it, which unfortunately for him, was the moment when he would normally have wrapped his arms.
He was thus penalised and yellow-carded for a no-arm tackle; ironic, considering that if he had followed the tackle all the way through (remember Chile scored a try from the move), nothing would almost certainly have happened.
Players are generally good enough these days to differentiate between decoy runners and receivers, and only very rarely is a decoy man taken out, which often creates enough of an advantage that no penalty is necessary anyway, or it may result in crossing and a penalty to the defending team.
Artfully sold dummies are another matter, though, as they often come in more perilous situations for defenders. Should someone really be penalised for taking the bait so completely? Isn’t the shame of being so completely sold enough of a cross to bear?
But another lesson to be learned is: wrap your arms in the tackle – whether you’ve been sold or not.