Owen Doyle: It’s clear that advantage law has become a contradiction of itself

A law interpreted differently depending on the position of play on the pitch is wrong

Time to talk about the advantage law.

My inbox is nearly chock-a-block, even supporters whose first sport is not rugby want to know. Recently, a couple of hurlers brought it up, they just don’t get it, and they are not alone. It’s not that ‘advantage’ is confusing, more that it’s become a contradiction of itself, particularly for penalty offences.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Not so long ago, well into the professional era, advantage was still considered the most valuable law of all. It offered the referee a way of not intruding after an offence, not blowing the whistle, play could continue without another stoppage.

It was refereed in accordance with what’s written in the book. Play was not halted, provided that the non-offending team had gained a clear tactical or territorial advantage. It had to be very real, not just an opportunity, and there weren’t many complaints about its adjudication.

A searing O’Driscoll-esque midfield break, taking a player way downfield past offside opponents, would have been considered a significant tactical, and indeed territorial, advantage. Play would continue if the attack subsequently broke down, or was repelled, or the ball turned over, or a clear overlap was wasted.

While it's all called ball-in-play time, it's nothing of the sort, more a waste of time

World Rugby’s performance reviews stated how many times the referee had returned to the penalty, and the fewer times he did the better he was judged. Returning would only happen if the anticipated advantage had not taken place, for example O’Driscoll being taken down shortly after he’d gone through the gap.

Play flowed, and teams did not get two bites of the cherry. Neither did it reward poor skill, such as a dropped scoring pass, or worse, remember Stuart Hogg losing the ball in Ireland's in-goal.

Referee Mathieu Raynal was playing advantage, and for that monumental cock-up Scotland were offered three points. Not Raynal's fault at all, but that was a joke. How credible will the game be if that sort of rewarded error decides the Six Nations, or the World Cup – just asking?

Referees do not return if the penalty offence has happened in a position from where there is zero chance of kicking a goal. But, if that three-point chance exists the prescription changes dramatically – here, advantage is never over, unless a try is scored, or perhaps a drop goal. So, failing a score, the referee returns to the offence, deciding that there has been no advantage, even though there clearly has been. You get the drift?

Of course, the kick at goal is often replaced with a kick to the corner, adding to the number of lineout mauls which are now such a constant characteristic of play. There is no doubt that this interpretation has significantly changed the shape of rugby.

The referee does not allow play to flow, but, instead stops it dead – next comes the discussion, ‘kick at goal’ or ‘to the corner’. Whichever, a lot of time is used up as the option is decided, set-up, and then taken. While it’s all called ball-in-play time, it’s nothing of the sort, more a waste of time. Referees make things worse by quickly sticking their arm out for each and every offence, irrespective of whether or not it’s had any effect on play.

This interpretation of advantage could best be rebranded the ‘play on and return’ law. It ignores not just the letter, but also the spirit of what is intended, becoming instead an unbending policy. It must be the only thing which is interpreted differently, depending on the position of play on the pitch. Riddle me that one.

It also presents a problem of consistency. Some referees play on for significantly longer periods than others, by the time they go back many have forgotten what the original offence has been. Asked recently how long it should be, Nigel Owens smiled, "how long's a piece of string?" Quite, and he is right – for obvious reasons it would be unwise to link it to time, or to a precise number of phases.

Inconsistency was also a worry around the previously correct approach to advantage, and that was true on occasion, but, in reality, it’s no more consistent now than then.

Coaches seem content to know that their team will always get that second chance if the attack goes wrong

Another concern was that players sometimes refused to play, particularly when the ball was slow at the breakdown, either dropping the ball, or placing it on the ground, to claim the penalty; clearly an unwelcome development. Referees were also starting to be criticised for not giving the kickable penalty, so they gradually started to go back to the offence, and next, nearly suddenly, it had become a done deal.

Coaches seem content to know that their team will always get that second chance if the attack goes wrong. But what of their defence, after a 50-metre attacking break into their own half, a team puts bodies on the line to keep out a try, and when they succeed in turning over the ball, it’s the opposition who get rewarded. Another riddle.

It’s not easy to see a reversal coming any day soon, and there are reasons for that thought. As with team coaches, the referees appear happy, probably because it’s easy, no judgment, no understanding required. And, another thing, there are a lot of referees who have never done it any other way than what we see today; there’d be quite some work needed to get this wrapped up and delivered.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to understand why coaches or referees can decide how the game is played, that it’s okay for them to interpret things as they wish. But wait, they’ve done that to the scrum already, the throw-in is so risible now that even the hurlers are smiling, thankfully too polite to laugh out loud.

Before advantage is consigned to the history books forever, it surely deserves a full debate, and a consensus agreed around which way of refereeing gives us a better game – please read that again, because it is all that matters.

If the new form of so-called advantage is preferred, please tell us why, and then World Rugby would need to rewrite the law – instead of telling us one thing, while we are busy watching the polar opposite.