Mitre10 Cup Trial Laws Abandoned by World Rugby

Referee Jamie Nutbrown makes a call during the round five Mitre 10 Cup match between Counties Manukau and Taranaki at ECOLight Stadium on September 14, 2016 in Pukekohe, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

The news that World Rugby won’t be taking the trial laws being used in the Mitre 10 Cup any further; in their current form, won’t be a surprise to many. Regular Last Word On Rugby contributor Scott MacLean looks at the impact of these changes, the positives and negatives for Rugby as a spectator sport.

The changes were pioneered first in European competition, and will end after the Mitre 10 Cup, Heartland Championship and National Rugby Championship [Australia] competitions are completed. New Zealand Rugby high performance referees manager Rod Hill acknowledges that the changes “went too far”. Hill is equally supportive that the trial took place;

“At the end of the day a trial is a trial. You don’t know the outcome until you do the trial.”

Why The Trial Laws?

The trial changes brought in an attempt to reduce injuries in the collision area, as well as the tackle and ruck. They have certainly generated plenty of debate and with The Rugby Championship happening in parallel. An opportunity to compare the two sets of laws side-by-side was one key benefit.

The world governing board acted fairly, with player welfare at the heart of the process. Input from all competitions worldwide and feedback from stakeholders. The overview was assessed and this weeks decision now ends the official trial, where certain aspects may very well be utilized while the majority will now be filed as ‘defunct’.

World Rugby Trial Laws
World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper addresses an audience – Photo courtesy of WorldRugby.org

With that in mind, LWOS look at what worked and what didn’t work in the Mitre 10 Cup competition.

The Good

The most positive aspect of the trial has been the improved height of the breakdown. This is down to two reasons primarily: firstly, the near-zero tolerance approach of the referees towards players who left their feet. Secondly, the absence of any reason for players to do so with the elimination of the ability for players to use their hands, to obtain possession at the breakdown.

By removing this low target for arriving players to ‘clean-out’ there simply became no need to launch themselves into the collision zone, as sometimes happens under regular laws; perhaps best epitomised by Springbok Lood de Jager’s moment of madness in the last Rugby Championship match. He felt the wrath of the officials and under these trial laws, that looked to be necessarily removed [the Good].

One added benefit was that with the height of the breakdown improved. It also made dealing with the tackler and ensuring that they complied with law easier. While their obligations to release the ball carrier and move away were unchanged, the visual difference in the breakdown has aided the referee’s job in this area greatly.

Offside line
Match referee Josh Bull signals during the Jock Hobbs Memorial Under 19 Rugby match Southland v Heartland (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Offside line clarity for players

A second worthwhile aspect was that some of the confusion of when an offside line was created, was eliminated.

Under current law, an offside line is only created when a ruck forms. Defending teams could exploit this by not committing and turning a tackle into a ruck, thereby not putting their teammate’s up-field into an offside position. The trial laws changed this by creating an offside line once ‘a teammate of the ball carrier’ was over the ball.

The Bad

The obvious place to start is at the breakdown.

The biggest area of contention was the removal of defending players on their feet being able to ‘play the ball with their hands’ once a breakdown formed. While this change was driven by safety, its impact on how the game is played was perhaps greater than the laws designers imagined.

Some teams–most notably Taranaki–proved that turnovers at the breakdown were possible by committing numbers and driving the opposition off the ball. Forcing themselves through the gate, pushing over and stealing possession of the ball [the Bad].

The effects of this change were felt across the game. Without the risk/reward, teams were unwilling to commit numbers to achieve turnovers at the breakdown. Instead, they simply fanned out to defend. The effectiveness of a ‘fetcher’ blunted, coaches reacted through their selections.

Teams adapt selections to suit

As an example, Auckland coach Nick White led the way selecting the physically imposing Akira Iaone–who is not your classic fetcher–at number seven. Reasoning was that adding another ballcarrier was the better option. Wellington soon followed suit, by using Brad Shields in a similar way.

Lastly, the defending teams were unable, or unwilling, to commit to attempting turnovers.

The Ugly

With the attention focused on the difficulty in getting turnovers it’s easy to overlook what was the biggest blight on the game– defending players hacking out with their feet at the breakdown, to disrupt their opposition’s ability to get quick clean ball.

Particularly used in the early rounds by many players, officials reacted by issuing an edict that ‘players could only use their feet if they were first bound to an opponent over the ball’. Referee’s followed that up on-field by penalizing players who weren’t bound, but the damage was already done.

Brad Weber
Marcel Renata of Auckland is taken down by Brad Weber and Ricky Riccitelli of Hawke’s Bay (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

It seems bizarre in hindsight that NZ Rugby officials didn’t anticipate it in advance. Former All Black Craig Dowd offered the opinion that “if the laws remain, then players should only be able to play the ball on the ground with their feet in a backwards direction.” Perhaps that is one aspect that should be put in place regardless.

So where to next?

Rod Hill has indicated that lawmakers are already looking at how to bring back some of the trial laws. This includes the allowance for players to keep their hands on the ball in the breakdown area. Hopefully, with some tinkering by World Rugby, that change would be sufficient to bring the contest that has been lacking, back into the game.

After this last twelve months, rugby’s governing body will analyse the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to find middle ground. Players, coaches and fans can now breath easy–trial over. Now the process of mitigating the benefits can occur, finding the middle ground and recommending any change. Something we are likely to see here next in one, or two years time.

“Main photo credit”

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