Owen Doyle: Let’s stop the law tinkering – safety issues apart

World Rugby proposals remain a work in progress but are still not strong enough to discourage serious foul play

World Rugby has spoken. Welcome and timely press releases have been published. Here’s some of what I took from them.

The decision on a global trial, or not, for the 20-minute red card replacement was, in fact, not made at the much anticipated meeting earlier this month. Council was not asked to rule on it by the executive board, as the latter had mandated that further closed trials should be held. The effectiveness of these new trials will be fully reviewed in November and that analysis will inform the board regarding wider implementation. So, we have to wait a little longer.

It’s tempting to say that the can has been kicked down the road, that the board itself is divided on the issue and could not reach a conclusion, or that it is unsure if enough unions will agree with their stance.

However, it is more important to consider if additional meaningful intelligence can really be provided in such a short time frame, and how it can possibly have enough weight to influence the debate.


The closed trials will take place in World Rugby tournaments, such as the Under-20s Championship and Trophy competitions, and also the Pacific Nations Cup. They will be accompanied by automatic suspensions.

These will be two weeks suspension for a player who has attempted a legal tackle but has mistimed it and/or has committed a reckless action but made minor errors in technique or timing.

It’s four weeks for a highly reckless action and/or a non-legal rugby action, such as tucked arm, no attempt to wrap. No mitigation will apply in either scenario, unless on appeal. Without demeaning the competitions for these trials, data from the age-grade Under-20s is hardly relatable to full-blooded professional rugby.

World Rugby states that these sanctions are stronger than what currently exists and severe offending remains subject to a potential hearing. But seeing dangerous hits which currently attract just a two- or three-week suspension, I’m not convinced that this package is anywhere near as robust as it should be.

We really should be reading of non-negotiable long sentences. How about six-months for some of the vicious stuff which has no place in any sport? A few such exemplary suspensions handed down would go quite a way to sorting things out.

This dilemma is self-inflicted. World Rugby would not have this issue if all member unions had grasped the nettle of leniency a long time ago.

Jared Wright, writing in Planet Rugby, has crunched the following numbers, which were accurate as of April. They provide an interesting measure of what works best as a deterrent combined with efforts to tackle correctly, and what does not.

Super Rugby Pacific: Nine reds cards in 66 matches. The red card replacement has been in operation for two seasons.

Next, competitions where the replacement is not allowed:

URC: 10 reds in 151 matches (one more red than SRP, but 85 more matches.)

Top 14: Nine reds in 188 matches

English Premiership: Two reds in 93 matches.

As much as anybody, I dislike seeing a team reduced permanently to 14 players. But, if that is the price to rid rugby of foul play, then it should be paid. Nevertheless, my sense of things is that the proposal will get the green light in November.

In any event, World Rugby approved three issues last week with these coming into law on July 1st. Crocodile-rolling of players at the breakdown is banned. The option of taking a scrum instead of a free kick is removed and strong scrummaging teams will detest this one. And all offside players must retreat when an opponent catches a kick – colloquially known as Dupont’s Law.

Also, from July onwards there are a series of other closed trials in the same competitions as mentioned above.

One trial is to play on if the ball is not thrown straight into the lineout, but only when it is not contested. At first glance, that seems okay. But then it also seems to work against the option of a team staying on the ground instead of jumping, preparing to contest the coming maul instead, which is a perfectly legitimate tactic.

There’s also something of the chicken and egg here; which comes first the crooked throw or the decision not to jump? Over time, contrived throwing strategies will not be beyond the fertile imaginations of elite coaches. Could we end up with teams, regularly or selectively, throwing down their own side?

Contest for possession is the heartbeat of rugby union, as distinct from rugby league where it doesn’t exist. That contest has long since gone from the scrum. And the lineout, as it is now, doesn’t need any meddling, rather it needs protection.

World Rugby have worked hard on their Shape of the Game ideal, with the objective of making the game more entertaining, and attracting new fans. Meanwhile, we are being treated to wonderful, mesmerising matches in front of huge crowds. That’s a strong indicator that there’s not much wrong with the current state of play. Let’s stop the law tinkering, safety issues apart.

To finish up, a word of hearty congratulations to Ulsterman Chris Busby, who has been appointed to referee not one, but two, Tier 1 Tests – Wales v South Africa, quickly followed by Argentina v France. Red-letter days for sure.

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