by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
By most accounts, the laws of the game of rugby did not change significantly for several decades, but the laws have changed dramatically over the past 15 years. SANZAR recently announced that the upcoming Super 14 tournament is to be played using some of the Experimental Law Variations (ELV’s).
A couple of the ELV’s selected for use in the upcoming Super 14 are; changing several full penalties to half arms, which will address a desire to lessen the emphasis on goal kicking. With the advent of more half arms awarded, I believe we will see the need for more structured penalty plays. This will certainly increase the amount of time that the ball is in play as well, some estimating by as much as 10 minutes per match. Another variation to be used in the Super 14 is the creation of a new offside line at defensive scrums. This will aid the attacking team while simultaneously creating more work for the referee.
With so much discussion generated by the ELV’s, it seemed to me an appropriate time to reach out to two top former referees, one from USA Rugby and the other from the International Rugby Board (IRB), to ask them about what they felt were marked changes to the laws of the game over the years.
Ed Todd, USA Rugby’s Referee Development Manager, has been around the game since the sixties and when asked, told me that “a significant change occurred in the early seventies when a law change meant that the attacking team could no longer kick the ball directly to touch when outside their own twenty-two and retain possession”. Ed went further commenting, “This created a dramatic shift in how teams tactically controlled their field position”. Mr. Todd felt it was several seasons before club teams across America came to grips with the law change.
Paddy O’Brien, the Referee Manager for the IRB, who had a distinguished career as an international referee told me, without hesitation, that he believes the law change that saw the referee calling the scrum engagement cadence to be the most significant change in the last ten years. Paddy inferred that this change has dramatically increased player safety during scrum engagements and has assisted in mitigating the possibility of catastrophic injury in the front row. It almost goes without saying that this change put a lot of responsibility on the referee’s shoulders.
Although the coaching staffs of the Super 14 teams feel the ELV’s to be positive, their effect on the game, and whether or not these variations will become law, is yet to be seen. O’Brien, who has been involved with the ELV’s from the beginning believes a by-product of the ELV’s could lead to fatigued defences being more vulnerable to the attacking team during the later stages of matches as several variations being used are sure to increase not only the minutes the ball is in play, but the speed at which is it put back into play. Super 14 coaches have already reportedly been upping player fitness levels catch up to the anticipated demands of the ELV’s.
For those who have played first class rugby and experienced how fast the speed of play already is, the ELV’s could take what feels like being chained to a runaway train become a ride on the space shuttle. Until the ELV’s make their way to the United States, which isn’t likely to happen until the Autumn of 2008, if they do at all, all we Americans can do is enjoy watching the ELV’s early next year in the Super 14.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand, the U.S. and England for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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