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Law Discussion: Manufacturing a penalty

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This really is for debate as in both these cases, the player penalised is trying to do the right thing - get out of the way.

By Paul Dobson, Moonsport

a. In the first incident, prop Tom Robertson of the Waratahs charges ahead. Prop Ruan Dreyer of the Lions tackles him low and both fall to ground, Dreyer behind Robinson. A ruck forms.

Dreyer is clearly making an effort to get out of the way, as the ball comes back to the Waratahs' scrumhalf, Nick Phipps, Dreyer is behind Phipps. Phipps looks straight at Dreyer and then throws the ball into him, holding out a hand to show the referee the evil that Dreyer has done. The referee penalises Dreyer.

b. The Lions attack down the left. Marnus Schoeman makes good ground and then Harold Vorster forges ahead. Michael Wells and Jake Gordon of the Waratahs tackle Vorster and a ruck forms.

The ball comes back to Ross Cronje, the Lions scrumhalf, who passes to his right. The ball hits Damien Fitzpatrick, the Waratahs substitute hooker, who is falling back to his side. The referee defines Fitzpatrick as a "lazy runner", penalises him and sends him to the sin bin.

a. Dreyer got where he got legally - tackling Robinson. Dreyer is a prop. He is not a nimble gymnast. Phipps could have passed the ball to his left or to his right but instead took aim and threw it at Dreyer. His reward was a penalty.

b. The Lions attack was fast and the ball came back quickly from the ruck. Fitzpatrick had been left behind by the speed of the play and was making his way back to his side, to be onside. Cronje could have passed the ball to Schoeman who was free behind Fitzpatrick. Instead, acting at speed and apparently unintentionally, he threw it into Fitzpatrick who was severely sanctioned. (Lions were leading 22-19 when he left the field and 34-19 when he returned.)

In both these cases the player penalised is trying to do the right thing - get out of the way in a. and getting onside in b. In neither case does the penalised player make any attempt to impede play.

In both cases, the scrumhalf could have passed differently.

In both cases, the penalty is standard practice, but should it be?

Should a player who finds himself, through no fault of his own in an offside position be penalised when he does nothing to interfere with play but play interferes with him?

In the new version of the laws, the laws governing offside are briefer and do not really answer our question.

Law 15 OFFSIDE AT A RUCK

Law 15.4: Each team has an offside line that runs parallel to the goal line through the ruck participants’ hindmost foot. If that foot is on or behind the goal-line, the offside line for that team is the goal-line.

Law 10 may be trying to establish a principle.

Law 10.1: A player is offside in open play if that player is in front of a team-mate who is carrying the ball or who last played it. An offside player must not interfere with play. This includes:

  • Playing the ball.
  • Tackling the ball-carrier.
  • Preventing the opposition from playing as they wish.

Law 10.4: An offside player may be penalised if that player:

  • Interferes with play; or
  • Moves forwards towards the ball;

Law 10.5: A player is accidentally offside if the player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate who is carrying the ball. Only if the offending team gains an advantage should play stop. Sanction: Scrum.

Law 10 that is quoted deals with Offside and Onside in General Play. But the principle that requires the offside player to do something wrong while in an offside position seems a reasonable one to apply to offside at the ruck as well.

Then could he not be considered "accidentally offside" because neither Dreyer nor Fitzpatrick could avoid being touched by the ball.

If that were applied, neither Dreyer nor Fitzpatrick would have been penalised, and it may just encourage scrumhalves to play "within the Spirit of the Laws".

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