Law Discussion: Air collisions
It is common knowledge that rugby football nowadays forbids playing a player who is in the air. This led to the IRB (now World Rugby) to amplify the law a bit and South African referees to discuss the matter at their latest course in Vanderbijlpark.
The law is not entirely practical.
Law 10.4 (e) A player must not tackle an opponent whose feet are off the ground
Sanction: Penalty kick.
The difference between running and walking is that in running both feet are off the ground at the same time. Rugby players regularly and with impunity tackle opponents who are running, i.e. have their feet off the ground. Imagine not tackling a player who is diving to score a try!
Mercifully, the practice is that the player who jumps for the ball is protected under this law – the player who jumps to catch the ball in the line-out and the player who jumps to catch an up-and-under/Garryowen/box kick, what South Africans in derogatory fashion used to call skop-n-charge.
There the law is clearer.
Law 10.4 (i) Tackling the jumper in the air. A player must not tackle nor tap, push or pull the foot or feet of an opponent jumping for the ball in a line-out or in open play.
Sanction: Penalty kick
(The line-out part of this law adtes back to the 1960s, the other bit about 'open play' is much more recent.)
When a man on the ground tackles a man in the air, that is easy enough, but what about when both players are in the air and there is a collision? In this case there may be no tackle or tapping, pushing or pulling of the feet.
But we have seen penalties and sanctionary cards when players have collided without a tackle or a tap, push or pull of the feet.
Then, it seems, it is up to the referee (often with the help of the TMO) to determine what is dangerous and the IRB (WR) has given guidelines.
These guidelines work off the principle that a player's safety is of paramount importance. The intention of the chasing player is not relevant nor is it enough that he has eyes on the ball. The chasing player has a responsibility for the safety of the receiver.
The guidelines find it legal if both players jumping for the ball are at the same height and going for the ball at the same time and that there is no infringement if a player jumps into a player stationary on the ground.
It gives these as illegal actions:
a. A player jumps without really contesting for the ball. For instance, he is jumping into the player who is trying to catch the ball mainly to disrupt the reception of the ball.
b. A player is not really contesting for the ball. For instance, he is running into the player who is trying to catch the ball mainly to disrupt the reception of the ball.
c. A player not jumping to contest the ball must not take out a jumping receiver. Looking at the ball does not make this action legal.
Then it comes up with decisions
Like the tackler, who is responsible for the safety of the tackled player, the chasing player is responsible for the safety of the player in the air.
For any illegal action, like for a tip tackle, it is the way in which the player falls and the part of the body that the player falls on which is relevant. If a player lands on his head/neck, it should be a red card.
There was debate about this and several incidents were examined. There are five below from the two matches at the end of November.
There were many debating points. Here are four.
a. The business of being level – at the same height – as the other jumper.
This is a contest for the ball, not a high jump contest. And there is nothing in the laws to suggest that height of jump is a criterion.
b. Intent is not a criterion in one breath and then there is the judgement of 'mainly to disrupt'.
c. Apart from the tip tackle, where is the tackler required to be 'responsible for the safety of the tackled player'?
d. Why is the chasing player more responsible than the catching player?
If you look at the clip below, it would seem that Cornal Hendricks of South Africa, the chasing player, who is yellowcarded was intent on catching the ball. He was in position before Leigh Halfpenny of Wales and Halfpenny seems to jump into him. The referee's judgement is that Halfpenny did not catch the ball because 'he was taken early'. And certainly playing a man who does not have the ball is well covered by the law and would apply to air collisions.
Would it not be much better to see what the laws say and apply them, rather than looking for some formula – in other words application rather than interpretation? After all, a player who jumps for the ball knows the risk he is taking – just as a player does in any tackle. Just as it's possible to get hurt in any legal tackle, so it is in the air collision even when it happens within law.
The law – just to refresh the memory – forbids tackling a player jumping for the ball in a line-out or in open play or playing the foot or feet of a player jumping for the ball.
Then there is Law 10.4 (e) Playing a player without the ball is dangerous play.
Sanction: Penalty kick.
It may be an interesting exercise to apply the laws to the clips below.