Ever since William Webb Ellis supposedly picked up the leather pill and ran with it, rugby teams have been trying to bend the laws. It's true of any sport. The competitive spirit almost demands it.
Most rule-bending manoeuvres are derivative by nature and it’s rare indeed when a coach/coaches, player/players come up with something completely new.
Maybe Edinburgh weren’t the first to come up with their dastardly ploy in Cork last Friday but it sure seemed to be a first and, as well as causing outrage among some of the Munster supporters, it seemed to catch out the match officials and those commentating on the game.
In the 35th minute at Musgrave Park, with Munster hammering at the Edinburgh line as they trailed 10-3, the Edinburgh loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman lifted the padding from the bottom of the visitors' left-hand upright, as Munster hooker Rhys Marshall drove for the line.
Schoeman continued to hold up the padding as Arno Botha picked and drove for the line, potentially denying the Munster number 8 the chance to ground the ball at the base of the padding.
A couple of phases later, the Edinburgh tighthead Pietro Ceccarelli lifted the padding on their right hand upright before being ordered not to do so by referee Marius Mitrea. He duly let the padding drop to the ground before helping to prevent Marshall from scoring. Eventually, after 22 phases, Tommy O'Donnell plunged for the line and was awarded the try, pending a review by the TMO.
Munster captain Jack O'Donoghue complained about Edinburgh's cheeky ploy, and the TMO, Stefano Penne, said to Mitrea: "Marius, I think once we have this sorted you have should have a word with Edinburgh about that. It happened twice."
After referring to the TMO and awarding the try, Mitrea called over the Edinburgh captain Henry Pyrgos and said: "I am going to award the try. The try is scored. I want to talk about your players lifting the posts, lifting the padding. It happened twice. If it happens again it may be more than a penalty, okay? It's very dangerous also. So have a word about this, and the try is good."
It could be argued that grounding the ball against the base of the upright (something Isaac Boss, among others, was particularly adept at doing) should not result in a try. It's a somewhat archaic law which pre-dates the use of padding, when touching the ball against the base of an unprotected upright was virtually on the line anyway.
The addition of padding has made it easier for try scorers to touch the ball against the base of an expanded upright. Somehow it never seems entirely right, and not quite as deserving of a try as a clear ground on or over the try-line, not least as, with the addition of padding, the ball can now be grounded in front of the line. This law is a bit of an ass.
But that’s an altogether separate argument.
It could also be argued that the Edinburgh props were being quite clever. It reduces the chance of conceding a try, and there’s no specific law which makes lifting the padding illegal. That not one, but two, of Edinburgh’s players used this ploy strongly hints that it was a preordained tactic, unless Schoeman instinctively came up with the idea, and Ceccarelli copied him.
It would be surprising if Edinburgh supporters were especially proud of, or even enchanted by, the sight of two of their players doing this, or that supporters generally would like to see their team employing such a dastardly act.
Mitrea was quick to deduce the evident risk to player welfare when informing Pyrgos of the dangers attached to the ploy and therein lies the rub: the ploy potentially endangers players. When padding around the base of the upright was first brought into the game, it was there to protect the players, to stop them from colliding with the uprights, be it with their heads or their bodies. Indeed, the clue is in the description, “protective” padding.
During the half-time analysis, Donnacha O’Callaghan observed: “You could say that is very smart, but that is so dangerous”. Schoeman had potentially endangered a player who dived against the base of the upright.
It was, as Tommy Bowe observed, something he'd never seen before. Jerry Flannery concurred and ventured, probably correctly, that Mitrea had never seen it before either.
Flannery also added that the padding is there for a reason.
Viewed in that light, Mitrea handled the situation pretty well, for he could then have been entitled to penalise Edinburgh subsequently if the trick was repeated, especially after a warning, with a yellow card and even a penalty try.
As with all law-bending ploys, as sure as night follows day, there’s every chance that someone, somewhere, will have seen Edinburgh’s props lift the padding at the base of their uprights and, when their line is under siege, will do the same.
Hence, as this falls under the ambit of player welfare and safety, it is both within World Rugby’s remit –and indeed is their duty – to declare that as this would endanger players it can be punishable with a yellow card and/or a penalty try.
Imagine this ploy was used in an underage or schools game and a player was injured?
Announcing that it is illegal to do so, and notifying all unions/federations and referees to that effect, will serve to stymie this ploy at its birth.