The new breakdown laws currently being trialled in the Mitre 10 Cup have found little favour with World Rugby’s law committee, according to sources close to the latest meeting. Scotty Stevenson assesses their impact on the numbers after six weeks of competition.
First trialled in club rugby competitions earlier this year, new breakdown law interpretations led by New Zealand coaches and referees were originally met with general positivity from stakeholders in the game. Supporters pointed to an increased number of tries and a less congested breakdown area, not to mention the mitigation of contact injuries.
However, the new laws, which were designed to prevent players leaving their feet when contesting for possession, and to give referees a clearer picture of the ruck, were discussed at the meeting and given a resounding thumbs down, mirroring the view of most fans of the domestic championship in New Zealand.
Opponents of the changes believe the laws have gone too far, removing the contest at the ruck (a fundamental part of the game of rugby union, the only footballing code in which the ball remains in play on the ground) and rendering obsolete the core role of the specialist open side flanker whose job has always been to make turnover plays.
This last point is significant, for while it could be argued that the laws have led to a faster game due to a reluctance on the part of defenders to seal off the ball, it cannot be argued that the quality of breakdown ball, and therefore the game, has improved. Nor can it be argued that there has been a significant upswing in tries scored.
After six weeks this year, the Mitre 10 Cup has produced 305 tries in total. However, if we look back at the same stage of the competition last year, teams had combined for 293 tries in total. An increase of two tries per week across a 14-team competition is hardly grounds for wild celebration.
In terms of making the game easier for the referee, it may well be argued that the opposite is true. Ideologically, referees have been advised to be particularly harsh on any player who leaves his feet at the breakdown. Because of this there has been a significant increase in the number of offensive penalties conceded due to what coaches refer to as “zero rucks”, where the defending team commits no one but the tackler (who must roll away, or bounce back to his feet and re-enter the breakdown from behind the ball) to the breakdown area, and the attacking player, with no one to push against simply falls over.
Despite that player invariably having no material impact on the phase, referees have penalised as a matter of course. When questioned about this, one experienced referee had this to say:
“Hardly any referee is putting any context around the decision. The infringement should have to prevent a contest otherwise it should not be called.”
Though tries have increased (negligibly) under the new laws, penalties have also increased. So far this year 901 penalties have been awarded across the competition with 541, or 60%, of those whistled at the breakdown.
At the same stage of the provincial championship last year, 856 penalties had been awarded. What is most interesting though is that 522 of those penalties were whistled at the breakdown, therefore the percentage of breakdown penalties has remained EXACTLY the same, at 60%.
While the trial laws appear to have had no real bearing on the number of tries scored, or the percentage of breakdown tries awarded, they certainly have had a material impact on the ability for teams to contest possession.
As mentioned, the laws have fundamentally shifted the role of the turnover specialist and have therefore curtailed the ability for defending teams to win turnover ball.
So far this season there have been 283 breakdown turnovers made. That is down from 375 breakdown turnovers made at the same stage last year, a reduction of 24.5%. That is a staggering number considering the importance of turnover plays in counterattack opportunities – one of the key weapons of New Zealand’s premier team, the All Blacks.
The picture for the individual sides is even more depressing. Last year Auckland had made 45 breakdown turnovers at this stage of the season on the back of players such as Mitch Karpik, an out-and-out ball hunter. This year, without Karpik and without the imperative to select a player in his mould, they have managed just 20 – a 55% reduction in their count.
Just five teams – Manawatu, North Harbour, Northland, Waikato and Wellington have improved their turnover rate under the new laws. Interestingly, those teams made up five of the worst six turnover teams at the same stage in 2016. More interestingly, Taranaki, whose coach Colin Cooper helped spearhead the law changes, has made the second fewest breakdown turnovers so far this season.
Here is the full comparison list of breakdown turnovers by team after six weeks in 2015 and 2016:
Given the cold reception to the new laws from World Rugby last week, it looks as if they will not make it past the trial stage. They have not led to a sudden surge in tries (although Week 6 did produce the most of any round this year, with 62), they have not led to a clearer picture for the referee, given penalty percentages have remained static, and they have led to a significant reduction in turnover ball, which goes against the spirit of the game.
There is some discussion of a simplified law variation that would still permit a contest, while removing the exiting loophole that allows the tackler to bounce back to his/her feet and make a turnover without having to first get behind the line of the ball. Unlike the current variations, that law will mean the open side flanker is no longer an endangered species. And we can go back to having a game that we (mostly) understand.
All numbers supplied by Paul Neazor at ThreeNRugby