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Law discussion: Laws Real and Unreal

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: There are laws in writing and laws in action, and sometimes words and actions are not in accord.


The famous thinker and writer, GK Chesterton, once wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” Sometimes it seems that there are laws of rugby football, too, that are untried.

In fact it seems that sometimes what are applied as laws are in fact not laws at all.

Let’s just say that if a law does not matter it should be removed. If it does not exist but is applied and should be applied, then it should be written down.

As the American preacher prayed: “Lord, give us good laws, and fewer of them.”

The most obviously untried laws at present are at restarts – the scrum, the lineout and kick-offs.

Law 19 Scrum

15. When both sides are square, stable and stationary, the scrumhalf throws in the ball:
f. Straight. The scrumhalf may align their shoulder [sic] on the middle line of the scrum, thereby standing a shoulder-width closer to their side of the scrum.
g. So that it first touches the ground inside the tunnel.
Sanction: Free-kick.
20. Front-row players may gain possession by striking for the ball but only once the ball touches the ground in the tunnel.
Sanction: Free-kick.


It is especially the straight put-in which causes the loudest outcry, because it seems to be ignored. It is the non-application of a sanction for the crooked feed and for “foot-up” that may be the cause of many scrum problems for the scrum as a contest for possession has been so diminished that the opposition have no way of contesting at a scrum other than to exert pressure on the front row.

Throwing into a lineout creates much less of an outcry, but….

23. The ball must:
a. Be thrown in straight along the mark of touch.

Unlike the crooked throw into a scrum, this one is applied from time to time.


These two are seldom applied:

5. When the ball is kicked:
a. Team-mates of the kicker must be behind the ball.
Sanction: Scrum.

10. Other than the placer at a place-kick, the kicker’s team must remain behind the ball until it has been kicked.

Sometimes the hooker wanders some distance downfield, presumably to get ready for the throw-in. And then, often, he waits there while his forwards hold a committee meeting to decide what to do next.

Now, let’s look at some that are applied that don’t exist. And let’s bear in mind the principle of “clear and obvious”.

This principle should be applied at the humble knock-on as well as in more serious infringements.

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.

Here are two hard ones.

A player jumps for a high ball. It strikes his chest and bounces several metres forward.
A player on the ground waits to catch a ball that has been kicked. He has his hands up to catch the ball but the ball goes behind his hands and slips down onto the ground where it bounces forward.

In neither case was the catcher in possession of the ball. But is there anywhere a referee so brave that he would not blow for a scrum for a knock-on? And yet in neither case has there been a knock-on.

Scrum penalty.

You will have seen this: The front row of a team stands up in a scrum, the referee blows his whistle, flaps his right hand upwards and penalises the front row that stood up, saying: “Standing up under pressure.”

Go through Law 19 on the scrum, and you will not find any penalty for “standing up under [pressure”.

You will find this:

25. If a scrum collapses or if a player in the scrum is lifted or is forced upwards out of the scrum, the referee must blow the whistle immediately so that players stop pushing.

37. Dangerous play in a scrum includes:
c. Intentionally lifting an opponent off their feet or forcing them upwards out of the scrum.

There is no sanction for “standing up under pressure”. In fact it would be dangerous if there were a law to forbid “standing up under pressure”. Pressure for front row players is often on their neck area and surely it is in the player’s interests to stand up if he is under such potentially dangerous pressure. Were it forbidden, rugby football authorities could find themselves under serious pressure if a player suffered a catastrophic injury.

There are other scrum penalties whose referee explanations, like standing up under pressure, are not found, word for word, in law, such as “running around” and “earning the turn”, the latter a sanction for wheeling the scrum, once an art form in rugby.

Then there is the ancient problem of when the ball is out of a scrum and, equally, of a tackle.

37. The scrum ends:
a. When the ball comes out of the scrum in any direction except the tunnel.
b. When the ball reaches the feet of the hindmost player and it is picked up by that player or is played by that team’s scrumhalf.
c. When the number eight picks up the ball from the feet of a second-row player.

There were many debates in olden times to describe when the ball was out – if a piece of string were attached to the hindmost feet of the players in the scrum and the ball went beyond the string it was out; if there was light above the scrum shining down on it, the ball would be out if it left the shaded area; if the dropping of a bird above the scrum could fall on the ball, the ball was out. That sport of thing.

The ruck is a similar situation. When is the ball out?

a. When the ball has been clearly won by a team at the ruck, and is available to be played, the referee calls “use it”, after which the ball must be played away from the ruck within five seconds. Sanction: Scrum.
b. The ruck ends and play continues when the ball leaves the ruck or when the ball in the ruck is on or over the goal line.
c. The ruck ends when the ball becomes unplayable. If the referee decides that the ball will probably not emerge within a reasonable time, a scrum is awarded.

It is worth noting that a ruck once form remains a ruck till it ends, and it does not end when the ball in a ruck comes up off the ground.

That is relevant to this piece of ;law:

11. Once a ruck has formed, no player may handle the ball unless they were able to get their hands on the ball before the ruck formed and stay on their feet.

But it seems, the scrumhalf is allowed to use his hands to extricate the law without ending the ruck. And he is allowed to put his hands on the ball, which many would consider handling the ball, before the ruck is over. It’s apparently over only when he lifts the ball up – which may not be in the law.

These are just some thoughts, perhaps to stimulate a debate.

More are possible.

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