Wed 9 Jan 2019 | 02:50

Rugby and applying its Laws

Rugby and applying its Laws
Wed 9 Jan 2019 | 02:50
Rugby and applying its Laws

SPOTLIGHT: Leo Tolstoy wrote in the 1860s: “Writing laws is easy, but governing is difficult.”


Tolstoy was not a rugby writer and the book in which he wrote this was War and Peace, but it could have been Rugby and Refereeing, for writing the laws of the game has probably been far easier than refereeing the game, and the people most under heavy fire in the game are certainly referees – even more so than selectors. It has ever been so and will doubtlessly remain so. The referee’s job is not an easy one.

We must start with the laws, for they are what distinguishes the game from all other games. Rugby differs from soccer, polo, chess and tiddlywinks because its laws are different.

Laws determine how the game is played and it is a referee’s duty to apply – NOT INTERPRET – those laws, in other words, to enable the game of rugby union football to be played.

The laws themselves proclaim in the forward to the written laws: The laws of the game are complete and contain all that is necessary to enable the game to be played correctly and fairly.

GK Chesterton, genius, once wrote: The problem with Christianity is that it’s never been tried. this could be in great part the problem with the Laws of the Game – they are not applied, at least not fully applied and the selective application and adaptation of laws are bringing its own problems of confusion and inconsistency.

All we want is consistency, the coaches cry. The only way to obtain consistency is by the full application of the laws – all of them, not just a selection of them, all of them  and not concoctions that are not law, such as allowing a held player to get a knee in the ground to turn what is really a maul into a tackle, not allowing a scrumhalf to stand behind the tackle/ruck unhampered, toying with the ball and slowing the game down, sometimes even pushing the ball back into the tackle/ruck with his foot.


There was an English saying Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves. Currency has changed but the sense remains the same, and it applies to rugby football.

Watch the final of the 1995 rugby world cup and look for collapsed scrums. But then the ball was put in straight and hookers controlled their feet till it arrived. There was not an introductory series of commands to form the scrum, but the scrums stayed up and were not the drawn-out procedure of today, twenty odd years later.

Look at the tackle in that match. The arriving players stayed on their feet and the game went on. There was no “cleaning out” and no falling on or near players. The game went on.

Now the scrumhalf stands as close as he can and puts the ball in towards his side, and scrums take minutes away from playing the game.


At tackles there are heaps of players on the tackle and players playing the man without the ball under the pretext of “cleaning out”.

An excellent thinker of the game, Alan Zondagh, who has wandered about the rugby world and now is the newly appointed director of rugby at the Blue Bulls, said that at a tackle, a referee would penalise an outside centre if he tackled an opponent while the ball was still locked up in post-tackle activity but he allows other players nearer the tackle to do so, even though the law is clear.

Law 9. 14 A player must not tackle an opponent who is not in possession of the ball
Law 9.15: Except in a scrum, ruck or mail, a player who is not in possession of the ball must not hold, push, charge or obstruct an opponent not in possession of the ball.

The tackle law repeats “on their feet” over and over. Apparently, the so-called low clean-out has opened the door to going off the feet without sanction. But the laws make no provision for a “low clean-out”.

Applying – not interpreting, for the love of the game – the laws of the scrum and the tackle could greatly advance the speed and attractiveness of the game which is in danger of withering away.

We could go on about the repeated tampering with the laws with amendments, clarifications and at these referee “camps” before big events. There should be no need to decide which laws are going to be applied and in which way. It’s all written down. Chopping and changing produce confusion for players, coaches, commentators, spectators and even the referees themselves.

It’s not great when a top referee in a top match of top players says after the match: I should have penalised, when the action was clearly contrary to what the laws prescribe.

There are other things we could talk about, small things but symptoms of the disease of sloppiness: in front of the ball at kick-offs, taking a penalty well ahead of the mark, awarding a try without even getting to the goal-line, let alone saluting the game’s finest act.

There is no point to the excuse that they are pedantic things that don’t matter. If they don’t matter, why do run ahead of the kicker or stand on a penalty’s mark and then move forward to kick the ball?

It would be a sad world if rugby football became a little bit in history along with episkyros, harpastum, tsu chu, knappan and la soule.

Oh, and could the new abbreviated/rewritten law book please have an index so that laws can more easily be found?

By Paul Dobson

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