Scotty Stevenson: New breakdown law adds clarity to game

New rules are being trialed at the breakdown in rugby. Photo / Greg Bowker
New rules are being trialed at the breakdown in rugby. Photo / Greg Bowker

Of all the wonderful things about Monday's Ranfurly Shield road trip to Paeroa - the sunshine, the crowds on the paddock, Jone Koroinsagana's intercept try - none were more wonderful than the fact new law variations around the breakdown were for the first time given a first-class trial, and actually worked.

Rugby union can be a confusing and seemingly impenetrable sport to the uninitiated, and the breakdown is the most confounding thing of all. It used to be known as the ruck. But rucking went the way of other unpalatable aspects of the game and in its place we got, well, a mess, really.

The breakdown could best be described as a mass pile of humanity under which a ball hides and it has been an area of the game which has defied understanding even while acting as the one crucial point of difference between rugby union and other oval ball codes. It allows for the ball to remain in play even when the player in possession is put on the ground.

As a result, the laws governing the breakdown have continually changed: those relating to offside lines, the ability for a player to place the ball, the time the ball was allowed in the breakdown, how a breakdown was actually formed, when a maul was a maul and a breakdown was a breakdown, what actually constituted a breakdown, who was actually allowed to play the ball in a breakdown, who wasn't in the breakdown even when they thought they were in the breakdown and who was in the breakdown even when they thought they weren't. It has been an endless roulette wheel of legal semantics and hobbyist tinkering. The tinkering continues, although this time some genuine clarity may be emerging from the body heap.

In March 2015, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen called for a review of the laws of the game, claiming rugby risked becoming boring and that it was too hard to referee. He had a particular beef with the breakdown, saying, "When there is a penalty at the breakdown, no one - not players, fans nor coaches - has any idea who's going to be awarded that penalty."

Hansen was dismissed by some who believed he was simply looking for a greater advantage for his own side. Yet, his reasoning was sound. Rugby had become a defensively-oriented game where disrupting the breakdown was the singular focus for the tackling team.

As the best players - think David Pocock, Sam Warburton, Richie McCaw, George Smith - refined their seal-and-steal game, they in turn became the target for the arriving attacking support personnel. As such, the trajectory of entry into a breakdown was an increasingly downward one, and the incidence of serious injury increased. Even the language used - "surviving the cleanout" - pointed to the potential harm faced by the modern day "jackal".

So what if you took that player out of the game before they were, quite literally, taken out of the game? What if their role was to take up the space over the ball as opposed to holding onto it until being either knocked off their feet or knocked into next week? What would happen if you created a genuinely clear offside line so teams could be rewarded for pushing over the ball, instead of diving onto it?

This has been the focus of the new law interpretations being trialled in club rugby. In Taranaki, says coach Colin Cooper who has helped drive the changes, the impact has been overwhelmingly positive - more tries, more room in the backline, far fewer players off their feet at the breakdown and teams being rewarded for numbers over the ball.

And it was the same in Paeroa on Monday. In fact, it was the least confounding game of rugby I can recall in a long time. It was goodbye to sealing and stealing and hello to lifting and shifting. Best of all, only twice were players penalised for being off their feet at the breakdown. And that was just unfortunate.

Both of them had tripped over their boot laces.

- NZ Herald

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