In the first half of last weekend’s Six Nations match, four of England’s forwards were committed to one ruck, Ireland had not a single player contesting for the ball or on the floor. By the time Danny Care had recycled the ball even the original Ireland tackler was in position.
Attacking players not in the ruck were then met with the entire Ireland team, a wall of men lining them up.
Rugby Union rightly refuses to turn into Rugby League and it is the contest for the ball that fundamentally differs between the two codes.
The only problem is that nobody wants the ball anymore in rugby union, as seen by the epidemic that is aerial ping pong.
The question is why not?
Originally, the defence was supposed to strive “to contest for possession” according to the International Rugby Board (IRB).
Now, for defending teams, it is advantageous not to contest the ball at rucks for two reasons:
The first is that, as the modern game is refereed, it is a disadvantage to take the ball into contact.
The offensive team is more often than not penalised for not releasing.
The second is that the defence commit as few players as possible to the ruck.
If the offence is to retain the ball and move it away from the initial ruck, the defence outnumbers the offence, creating fewer gaps and fewer one-on-one opportunities for the backs.
The defensive pressure results in dull kicking as the attacking team find themselves in a continually worsening position on the pitch, after having possession for only a few phases.
The result is a quiet and deserved booing from both sets of supporters when their heads are forced back and forth like a tennis crowd, watching consecutive kicks.
For the usually subdued rugby faithful to voice protest there must be a serious problem.
Is the booing directed at the players or flaws in the laws?
With professional sports teams having to win to survive, the laws are always going to be pushed to the limits.
However there is hope that this will change in the near-distant future.
If you stand on the sidelines of any school match you’ll see a great and entertaining contest wherever the ball is and proof that a contest at the ruck creates more tries.
The simple enthusiasm and desire of young players wanting the ball in their muddy hands in rucks creates space across the rest of the pitch as numerous players are committed.
So when the ball eventually makes it to the boy who has been put on the wing he has a chance against the defence.
The professional game desperately needs definitive, clear, unambiguous refereeing to ensure a contest at rucks.
Unfortunately, Brendan Venter, the only man in rugby to speak out on the referees, reverted to ranting at the time and so only his controversial statements singling out David Rose in the Saracens defeat to Leicester made the headlines.
The more balanced statement by the chief executive of Saracens eloquently stated that: “the laws relating to the breakdown are inconsistently interpreted.”
To solve the refereeing of rucks, absolute clarity of the existing laws is needed along with strict application.
By showing immediate yellow cards to players who do not “endeavour to stay on their feet”, (as the IRB wish they would), the defence could actually compete for the ball at the ruck as attacking players would not be going to ground to protect possession.
Concurrently, with the threat of a yellow card, the advantage at the next play would return to the offence as defenders would be encouraged to contest for possession rather than just slow play down.
The consequence of this strict referring for the attacking side would see fewer defenders beat away from the ruck, as well as a faster ball from the ruck, or at least only fourteen men playing for the opposition.
On the other hand if the attacking team is found to be returning the ball into the ruck with a sly nudge of the boot – which “just slows everything down” according to referee Nigel Owens – another predictable pod is set.
The law should surely be changed to a penalty to the defending team from a free kick.
If for no other reason than the frustration it causes to the fans who can’t fathom why the scrum half is standing with the ball at his feet for so long that every player on the pitch frozen as if playing stuck in the mud.
By not allowing scrum halves to keep the ball in the ruck, a faster, more fluid game would result.
By refereeing these laws with new found aggression, the attacking team can rightly regain the advantage at the next play by being provided with quick ball and space to attack.
For rugby to entertain the traditional and the uninitiated fan, a contest must be provided at rucks by the referees, unleashing more space for try time.
By Morgan DC Roberts