Owen Doyle: New laws on Australian show could turn rugby union into league

Union’s struggle for popularity in Australia has seen new controversial rules adopted

While we are all immersed in the Six Nations, there's something afoot Down Under. In what are termed efforts to make the game more spectacular and quicker, current law trials have turned to Rugby League for more than a shade of plagiarism.

First offering on the menu is the 22:50, and 50:22 indirect kicking to touch trial. This would allow Johnny Sexton to target a space behind the defence and bounce the ball into touch, from either his 22 into the opposition half; or from his own half into the opposition 22.

You'll probably have to read that again, then you'll get the drift. When the kick is "successful," the throw-in would go to Ireland.

Anything that rewards a team for kicking the ball out of play must come with a serious health warning; and aren’t we trying to increase the ball in play time, and do we need more kicks? The idea behind it is that defences will have to place an extra man deep in order to prevent the ball finding touch, thus making the defensive line less effective.


Maybe it works with league’s 13 players, but it’s a very long shot in union. And it completely overturns the key principle of the other team getting the lineout throw because you kicked the ball out; penalty kicks are the only exception, and some question that as well.

Now, imagine Tadgh Beirne breaking for the Scottish goal-line, with a mighty effort he gets over with half the opposition pack on his back, but the ball is held up a bare millimetre short of a grounding. Scrum to Ireland? Nope, under the trials, Scotland would be allowed a drop-out restart from anywhere along their goal-line.

Scant reward for Beirne, and massive reward to the defence, who could now just thump the ball way downfield.

Next, restart infringements by the kicker’s team, such as kicking directly into touch, would be a mandatory free-kick (no scrum option) sanction. So, that’s another pesky scrum out of the way.

Proposals are put forward aimed at solving their problems, but these actually tear at the very fabric of the game

The scrum currently provides plenty of attacking options but, of course, it takes so long to set, and to reset, that it’s obviously seen by many now as a nuisance. Instead, let’s copy league.


But come on, let’s fix things instead. As with the ruck most of the scrum solution is hiding in plain sight, in the Laws. Referees have been permitted for too long to get away with allowing comically crooked scrum feeds, this offence fell off their radar entirely, a long, long time ago.

The same refs will free-kick the merest hint of an early scrum engagement, upgrading to a penalty on the second offence - even if those two offences are an hour apart. No such upgrading exists for the throw-in.

In Australia, union is far down the pecking order in popularity, and is having a very hard time competing with other sports. As a result, proposals are put forward aimed at solving their problems, but these actually tear at the very fabric of the game, and are contrary to the principles and characteristics of both its laws and charter.

Here we are, a little over 10 years later, and more radical stuff suggested from down south, which many will agree that the game does not need, nor should it want

Some years ago, the notorious ELVs - experimental law variations - raised their ugly heads. Proposed by a group headed by Australian World Cup winning coach, Rod McQueen, these would have utterly changed the face of union. If they’d been successful, and added to the current trials, the cloning of union to league would be all but complete.

One result of the ELVs would have been to make the maul redundant as an attacking force by allowing it to be collapsed. The maul is one of union’s three ways of moving the ball forward, the other two being running it, and kicking; another key element cast to the winds.

Proposed also was the reduction to a free-kick for most offences. Supposedly, an “all singing, all dancing” edition of the sport.

Championed by World Rugby the main radical proposals were soundly defeated at a summit meeting in London in May, 2009. The IRFU was first to spot the flaws (lost weekends in Lansdowne Road HQ, with referee coach, former international David McHugh), and then the baton was taken up by the RFU, led by former Welsh coach Kevin Bowring. His in-depth analysis and presentation proved decisive.

Here we are, a little over 10 years later, and more radical stuff suggested from down south, which many will agree that the game does not need, nor should it want.

At some stage, these trials may likely be proposed for adoption into law. The process will be inclusive and each union will have its say, and its vote. Where lies Ireland, I wonder?

The influential performance director, David Nucifora, will also have his say. He is due to leave his position sooner rather than later, so one would hope the IRFU will formulate and deliver their own view.

Now, I do not know what his opinion is, and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise. But I do know that, as Australia Rugby’s performance manager, Nucifora keenly supported the ELVS.

Match of Cards

PS - I didn't see Munster v Connacht on Friday, refereed by newcomer Chris Busby from Ballyclare. A trusted friend told me - "didn't really notice him, seemed to know what he was doing, didn't talk too much." Sounds promising.

In the Match of Cards, Ulster v Leinster, referee Frank Murphy unwisely allowed himself to be talked into a red card by TMO Olly Hodges; Murphy's original "decision" of yellow, was undoubtedly the correct call. Insult is often added to injury and Leinster's Jimmy O'Brien was very fortunate that the referee saw no more than 'yellow' in his collision into Ian Madigan.