The breakdown is a massive and complex part of rugby union that allows it to stand apart from other sports. It is important that we make it work. But also, in a very real sense, it’s a hot mess and I want to poke it with a stick.
*This has become a multi-part series as the subject is one of the largest and most complex ones in rugby union and I’m only scratching the surface.*
To avoid any accusations of reactionary bitterness on account of Scotland beating England by controlling the breakdown area, let’s instead talk about an Aviva Premiership game played on Sunday the 25th of February 2018 between Saracens and Leicester. The full replay is on the Aviva website.
Part One: Sealing Off
Throughout this game, the breakdown area was reffed inconsistently.
This is a bland non-statement that you can post about any match and fans will nod their heads in agreement. So, let us take a look at what this feeling of inconsistency might actually be referring to.
In every game we see players taking the ball into contact with a support player close behind. These support players, in a desperate attempt to prevent turnovers, will fly over the top of the tackled player to seal off the ball. This is one of the basic ways that you can give away an attacking penalty at the breakdown. Now this, in my opinion, is a good law. It promotes competition at the breakdown and the less out of control diving events we have in rugby the better. The issue, as is always parrotted, is consistency.
Refs are sometimes reluctant to penalise off your feet clearouts if they deem them inconsequential or if the penalty would be disruptive to the flow of a game. This is where spectacle and entertainment take over. A referee not blowing the whistle over a ruck that had little to no competition would appear to be an act of common sense.
The knock on effect of this, however, is that players believe they understand how a referee is interpreting a game and adapt accordingly. Then, a moment later, they seal off a ruck conceding a penalty and it all blows up in their face. These penalties seemingly come out of the blue but coaches and fans alike are seeing the pattern. Refs are becoming selective.
This level of selective law application surrounding going off your feet at a ruck has been going on for at least eight years. I know this as during my research I found a great article explaining the issues back in 2010. It has lead to an increase in pressure and criticism on referee decision making and has made key moments far more debatable. This all stems from the tinkering of the laws by World Rugby but we’ll talk about this in part 2.
Pay close attention to the following passage of play for players going off their feet/not supporting their weight at the ruck.
Leicester Tigers vs Saracens
This video shows almost every other ruck became sealed off by a player off their feet or somebody not correctly supporting their bodyweight. This is a normal passage of play. The worst and most obvious offender being the Leicester number five who twice flops onto a ruck in a fantastic leaping salmon impression.
This whole passage of play above exemplifies to me why the breakdown is perceived as broken and inconsistent. We can’t even tell the difference between a salmon leaping and a ruck anymore. It is literally impossible.
There are clearly no differences between the two clips. smh.
The commentators don’t mention the off feet moments and the ref doesn’t seem to care, he’s instead focusing on the defensive offside line. But, if this passage of play were five metres out from the tryline or in the last minute of a massive game-defining moment. Then one of these clearouts would have undoubtedly been penalised. This matters, not just because of the generic complaint of inconsistencies but of the genuine issue that players adapt to referees. If they change their interpretation part way through a game then it can destroy game-defining moments.
I only had to rewatch for three minutes before finding this footage and don’t believe for a second this is a Northern Hemisphere problem. Super Rugby footage could easily have been used and the Crusaders v Stormers game on the 3rd of March had its problems. This is a global issue.
Why should the laws only be applied so incredibly intensely during key moments?
A referee can go to any particular breakdown and find a penalisable offence. As a result, the game is almost being put into the hands of one person. This person can create drama and spectacle at a moments notice. Sure, maybe allowing the referees the freedom to make common sense choices is the only way to keep the game alive. But I have this nagging back of mind feeling that it shouldn’t be this nebulous.
I’ll see you again in Part 2 where we’ll revisit the World Rugby law changes and try to find the root of this issue. If you want to get familiar with the changes read Fred’s article analysing them when they were first introduced.