Tuesday, 9 March 2010
So, the northern hemisphere is going to have to embrace the new interpretations of some crucial laws of the game during the course of the next 16 months leading up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
IRB Referee Co-ordinator Paddy O'Brien has confirmed that the zero tolerance of southern hemisphere referees in the Super 14 this year, regarding four critical areas, will be gradually implemented north of the equator.
That means life is going to change considerably for flankers and any other forwards who have lived like parasites off bodies on the ground, trying to off-load the ball when tackled. The new interpretation is only following the letter of the law, but it has proved hugely effective in opening up the game in the Super 14.
As I wrote last year, all it has required is referees to crack down on the players laying all over the loose ball, sealing it off and denying the opposition rapidly recycled second phase possession. A healthy dose of yellow cards has backed up the strict interpretation in the Super 14 and hey presto, we have seen some real rugby based on attack, not just defence.
I believe that, with this new interpretation of the existing law, the influence of breakaway forwards, or 'fetchers' as they call them in South Africa, will in time be considerably diluted. For me, this is a huge bonus for the game. Too many breakaways have been allowed to kill the game by their negative tactics at the breakdown. The New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, for example, has long since perfected the art of bringing a player to ground in the tackle, illegally holding onto him so as to prevent instant release of the ball and then, while still holding on, sliding himself around so that he enters the breakdown not, as the law states, from behind the rear feet but from the side.
McCaw has become a master at this tactic and it has helped slow down the second phase possession of every side that has faced the All Blacks. Others, like him, have similarly profited.
When referees get seriously tough in the northern hemisphere, we can expect a rush of yellow cards and the usual, predictable bleating about a southern hemisphere conspiracy.
But it is nothing of the sort. The English fly half Andy Goode, now playing Super 14 for South African franchise the Sharks, was yellow carded during his team's match against the NSW Waratahs in Sydney last weekend for a stupid piece of deliberate offside play.
A lot of Goode's former northern hemisphere colleagues are going to suffer a similar fate unless they learn fast.
All this is, is a determination to open up the game, to free it from this trough of negativity and defence riddled tactics.
There are other areas which O'Brien's referees have targeted and they, too, have been hugely important. When players have kicked downfield, any player ahead of the kicker has been ruthlessly penalised if he has made a single stride towards the opposing player catching the kick.
This has been refereed so strictly because the lawmakers want to encourage those fielding downfield kicks to run the ball back at the opposition, not just kick it.
Faced with a line of attackers who have followed the kick, that has been virtually impossible for the ball receiver and, thus, in nine cases out of ten, he has kicked the ball back. By policing the offside line so severely, southern hemisphere referees have opened up space to invite the counter attack, ball in hand. This, too, is to be welcomed.
The third area targeted has been the scrums. It is considered that by forcing the two packs to come closer before the engagement, there is less likelihood of a collapse. The intent is fine, but the early weeks of the Super 14 and certainly the games I have watched across the southern hemisphere, have been inconclusive. The jury remains out on this one.
Finally, ensuring defending players at the line-out can challenge the ball carrier at the maul rather than be blocked out by the line-out lifters, is another priority for officials. This, too, is designed to ensure there is a real competition for possession whatever the phase.
Australian coach Robbie Deans said this week the new interpretations (remember, NOT new laws) had moved rugby close to "the perfect game".
I'd be a touch more cautious than that at this early stage. But what I like about these new interpretations is that they encourage positivity and target negativity. The days of clubs like Saracens just kicking the leather off the ball, giving it to the opposition and attempting to force them to make mistakes from which Saracens could kick penalty goals to win games, may be ending.
For that, we all ought to cheer. The smartest coaches – and I include Saracens' Brendan Venter in that – can adapt. They will have to, if they want to win games in future.
Defence will remain an important part of rugby and rightly so. But what these new interpretations do is offer proper opportunities to those who want to attack. The pendulum had swung too far against the attacking team. Thank God, someone in the game has at last done something about it.