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Duty Ref 528 - Old Mountain Goat

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The top referees have been scattering to all parts at present and so the Old Mountain Goat will lift his head from his grazing and answer three questions - two which are matters of fact and a third, from thoughtful Bob Rees, which is the most frequently asked question.

1. Name: Barend van der Linde

Question: Since when is a Seven-a-side final only seven minutes a half?

Old Mountain Goat: Since November 2016. It was a World Rugby decision after research which showed that injuries were more prevalent in the second half of finals than in 14-minute matches. And so finals were reduced from 10 minutes a half to seven minutes a half.

2. Name: Kobus Nel

Question: Please, confirm in which year the rule changed where you can kick for touch only from behind the 22, not outside. Thanks.

Old Mountain Goat: 1970. But it has a long history.

The suggestion on restricted kicking to touch from outside the 22 (25 then) was first made to the International Rugby Board in 1919. It was not accepted. It was rejected again in 1926 and 1936 until in the 1960s relaxation of a kind started but in 1965 when South Africa asked the IRB to allow it the same restriction on touch kicking that was enjoyed by Australia, the IRB refused permission.

Then in 1967 the IRB allowed "all Unions wishing to do so" to experiment at club level with an experimental law which said "when the ball pitches in touch from a kick other than a penalty kick or a kick from within the kicker's half of the fields, a line-out shall be formed opposite the place from which the ball was kicked"

Half not 25/22.

In 1969 the experiment was changed, limiting directing direct kicks into touch to penalty kicks and kicks from within the kicker's 25 (now 22).

In 1970 The IRB approved a proposal that the experimental; "kicking into touch Law" become Law.

It was not a rapid process!

3. Name: Bob Rees

Question: In the 2017 Six Nations France vs Scotland match, it was clear to the watching millions that Baptiste Serin, the French scrumhalf was putting the ball into every scrum, not just crooked but almost into his second row. There is no way that Jaco Peyper, the referee, nor either of his assistants, Luke Pearce and John Lacey, could not have seen that.

My understanding is that Alain Rolland has said that a "credible" feed will be allowed without penalty. But these were all incredible! Which leads to the conclusion that a directive has been issued at the top level of the game to ignore completely this Law of rugby. Could an explanation please be given as for the majority of rugby watchers things have gone too far.

Old Mountain Goat: This is far and away the most frequently asked question we get. After all every spectator, at a match or in front of the TV, has his idea of what a fair scrum feed is. But what he sees is not regarded as a fair feed. It gives rise to hyperbole: "That little cheat just stuck the ball in under his No.8's feet, and the ref allows it."

There is nothing that lowers refereeing credibility as much as perceived crooked scrum feeds - not even forward passes. It is not quite as simple a task as it looks and in dealing with the question in leisurely fashion it is to be hoped that we shall go some way too making scrum feeds less incredible.

Putting the ball fairly into a scrum dates back to 1892, and the penalty for not doing so was "a free kick by way of a penalty".

As the French say, the more things change, the more they are the same. This is the law as it is now:

Law 20.6 (d) The scrumhalf must throw in the ball straight along the middle line, so that it first touches the ground immediately beyond the width of the nearer prop’s shoulders.
Sanction: Free Kick

Middle line?

The middle line is an imaginary line on the ground in the tunnel beneath the line where the shoulders of the two front rows meet.

But it took some years for the law to be as clear as it is now. It is now so clear that there seems little excuse in not applying it. It also happens on a static, set occasion which the referee is controlling. He also has two assistant on the sideline, closer than the spectators who complain about it and often in line with the scrum feed.

The scrum used to be the core of the game - men standing upright, chest to chest hacking the ball - and opponents' shins - to move the ball forward. A scrum could last twenty minutes or more and was lots of manly fun.

Then players bent down and the ball was heeled rather than hacked forward. Then players began to get set positions, not just "first up, first down". Then the former Springbok Paddy Carolin invented the 3-4-1 formation when 3-2-3 or even 2-2-3 was in vogue. Then Oubaas Markötter developed the 3-4-1 scrum and South Africa ruled the rugby roost. In the middle of the front row there was an ardent rogue, called a hooker, whose game was wrapped up in the tighthead count. He hooked. But along came Francisco Ocampo of Argentina to change that in the late 1960s. He used engineering principles and moments of force to come up with the bajada scrum which was all shoving off 16 feet and no hooking.

The reduction in sanction for the skew feed (and foot-up) from penalty to free kick also suggested that it was less important than it used to be.

This made a scrum even more of a physical contest and, whether by coincidence or cause and effect, serious accidents - catastrophic and life-changing - took place. This led to much criticism of rugby and its scrummaging. It reached its nadir in 1991 when Ben Smoldon, playing hooker for Sutton Coldfield Colts, was paralysed for life when a scrum collapsed. He sued the referee, Michael Nolan, for £1 million. Five years later the court found in favour of Smoldon with costs.

An ordinary match with ordinary players, an ordinary referee and an horrific injury and big judicial punishment.

There was turmoil in rugby with the scrum in the eye of the storm. Rugby lawmakers set about making the scrum safer. They were most radical for players below the age of 19 where shoving is limit to 1,5 metres..

For all rugby the referee controlled the setting of the scrum with steps of command. The focus for managing the scrum was all on the safety of players. At the top level there would be two packs of eight players each weighing over 900 kg. That in itself is demanding - just watching 16 players and their 32 feet and 32 arms.

Then there were increasing regulations about binding and the direction of the shove.

There were various and varying offside lines, the process of substitution with the increase in the size of a match team from 22 to 23 to make sure there were three front-row replacements and the possibility of the detested uncontested scrums.

And in addition there was the upset at the number of reset scrums in a game that had to be entertaining for watchers.

In the midst of all this the fair feed fell by the wayside - more honoured in the breach than the observance, as Hamlet said though he was not talking about the application of the scrumming laws. From time to time the big authorities in world rugby have emphasised the importance of putting the ball in straight and even making threats to referee status if not observed, but it has made almost no difference. World Rugby is concerned about it, it says - but unconvincingly.

There are some who would have the scrum jettisoned. There are some who are horrified at the suggestion, seeing it as abandoning one of the game's core values as a game for all shapes and sizes.

There are others who believe that concentrating on a fair put-in and the application of the foot-up law would restore safe scrumming by making hooking a viable option for the team not putting the ball in. (There is still a law forbidding the early lifting of the foot at the scrum, which is even less observed than the straight feed.) The positioning of the scrumhalf at the put-in is also important.

The referee and his assistants have a lot to do. For one thing the assistants have to keep an eye on the back lines, each checking that their group is back five metres from the scrum.

We have rambled on. Let's look at what the laws say.

Law 20.6 How the scrumhalf throws in the ball

Throw-in at the scrum

(a) The scrumhalf must stand one metre from the mark on the middle line so that player’s head does not touch the scrum or go beyond the nearest front row player.
Sanction: Free Kick
(b) The scrumhalf must hold the ball with both hands, with its major axis parallel to the ground and to the touchline over the middle line between the front rows, mid-way between knee and ankle.
Sanction: Free Kick
(c) The scrumhalf must throw in the ball at a quick speed. The ball must be released from the scrumhalf’s hands from outside the tunnel.
Sanction: Free Kick
(d) The scrumhalf must throw in the ball straight along the middle line, so that it first touches the ground immediately beyond the width of the nearer prop’s shoulders.
Sanction: Free Kick
(e) The scrumhalf must throw in the ball with a single forward movement. This means that there must be no backward movement with the ball. The scrumhalf must not pretend to throw the ball.
Sanction: Free Kick

And the matter of foot-up.

Law 20.8 Front-row players
(a) Striking before the throw-in (‘foot up’). All front row players must place their feet to leave a clear tunnel. Until the ball has left the scrumhalf’s hands, they must not raise or advance a foot. They must not do anything to stop the ball being thrown in to the scrum correctly or touching the ground at the correct place.
Sanction: Free Kick
(b) Striking after the throw-in. Once the ball touches the ground in the tunnel, any front row player may use either foot to try to win possession of the ball.

There have been suggestions that having laws that are not observed is an aspect of lawlessness, that scrapping the laws would be better. One wonders where that would end and how relevant scrumming would be.

After all there are occasions when the scrum is subjected to laws that don't exist at all - like a penalty for standing up, like a penalty for a deliberate wheel, like the bluff about 'earning the turn'. If it is possible to apply non-laws it can't be too hard to apply laws.

Surely it must be possible for the referee at least to glance at the put-in. Just a glance would tell whether it was put in fairly. After all he tells the scrumhalf when to put it in.

Ask the duty referee

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