Matt Williams: Time for World Rugby to pick up the ball and run with rule changes

Cleaning up rucks and lowering target area for tackles to waist-high would help greatly

The mythology surrounding rugby's conception states that in 1823 at Rugby School, during a game of soccer, a student named William Webb Ellis, picked up the ball and ran.

In reality, there is no real evidence to support the story that Billy Ellis picked the ball up and changed all the laws of the game.

So this story has the same credibility as Liverpool FC needing government money to pay wages. However, unlike the story regarding Liverpool FC, rugby is a rattling good yarn.

Since that cataclysmic change at Rugby School in 1823, rugby has displayed an all but unbending wall of conservatism to law changes. The welcome news is that World Rugby has announced a clean up of the dangerous, post-tackle free-for-all we knew as rucks.


In the early 2000s a group of well-meaning but deeply misguided lawmakers, won the fight to rid the game of rucking. They claimed rucking was dangerous.

Under the law of massively unintended consequences, “tagging” with the boots was banned because players got scratched and they replaced it with an MMA wrestling bout.

Today, their argument has the same logic as suggesting if you wear a car seat belt and have an accident, the seat belt will give you a bad bruise, so we are going to ban seat belts. Years later, as you fly through the windscreen, you realise that decision may have not been such a good idea.

Despite World Rugby’s announcements on the ruck, we still do not know if the wrestling move used at the ruck, known as the “crocodile roll” has been banned.

The crocodile roll occurs when an arriving player at a ruck smashes into and bear hugs a player already over the ball. He then uses his body weight to roll him away. This action is responsible for countless serious knee, neck, shoulder and ankle injuries.

The law has always stated that it is illegal “to intentionally collapse a ruck,” so the crocodile roll has always been illegal but never penalised. World Rugby must state that the the crocodile roll is banded because it is exceptionally dangerous.

Key changes

This is an example of the deep frustration within the rugby community because there are so many areas where the laws have not kept pace with the significant changes coaching has brought to the playing of the game.

Those charged with the exceptionally difficult task of legislation at World Rugby should use this time to reinvigorate the game by accelerating key changes to the law and game management policies.

For example, if World Rugby acted immediately on the recommendation to lower the target area for all tackles to the waist, this would not only create safer contacts, which is the main driver for this law change, but it would also create incredible opportunities for the attackers to offload.

Low -focus tackles exponentially increase the opportunity for offloading out of the tackle.

Under a positive twist to the law of unintended consequences, lowering the tackle target area would be a bonus for attacking play. It should create less tackles and rucks, so this law change would dovetail with the law changes at the ruck.

It is also the time to help our officials and introduce the use of two on field referees to the elite end of the game. One official to adjudicate the tackle and ruck area, while the other polices the defensive offside line.

This requires no law change, only a change to the on field management by the referees. Rugby League has proven that by adding a second referee, the attacking team has more space because the defenders are kept onside.

If two referees were on the field, introducing the already trialled 50 metre-20 metre kicking law would be much easier.

This law change provides the attacking team with the opportunity to kick the ball from behind their halfway mark. If the ball goes into touch on the bounce in the opposition 22 metre area, the attacking team, that kicked the ball, gets the throw into the lineout.

Wondrously, the lost art of torpedo punting will immediately return, because when torpedo kicks hit the grass, their bounce accelerates forward.

The defending teams will have the dilemma of whether or not to leave defenders in the backfield to cover the kicks. If they do it will create gaps in their defensive line for the attackers to exploit.

A blight

Scrums are once again a blight on the game. We need to see a return to the excellent laws from the 1980s, when penalty kicks at goal were not allowed from scrum infringements. All scrum infringements should return to “bent arm” free kicks [can not kick at goal].

Games are being won and lost on highly questionable scrum penalties. Let’s be honest, most referees are getting these decision wrong and who can blame them, the scrums are exceptionally messy.

I don’t like it or agree with it, but in today’s game, play stops when the referee signals for a scrum. So the match clock must now also be stopped.

The referee can signal time on when all 16 forwards are bound and on their feet

That will save the huge amount of illegal time wasting we are forced to witness at every match, as we wait an age for each scrum to form.

This extremely difficult time in our history is an opportunity for World Rugby to do “a Billy Ellis” and pick the ball up and run with it.