Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Why the 'Richie Rule' must be stopped

By Paul Lewis

Let's hope what might be called the 'Richie Rule' - the new breakdown laws being trialled at Mitre 10 Cup level - never go any further because they may spell the end of one of the great strengths of New Zealand rugby.

The trial rules (it must be acknowledged it is early days; coaches and players may not yet be quite to grips with things) could signal the demise of the ball-burgling No 7, openside flanker - the greatest exponent of whom has been Richie McCaw. The changes make such a difference more than one commentator has been moved to wonder whether McCaw, had these rules been in force when he was on the way up, would even have made it into the All Blacks, let alone play 148 tests.

The cold, hard reality is that the ball-stealing No 7 - a position the All Blacks have perfected ahead of any other country with the likes of McCaw, Josh Kronfeld, Michael Jones, Jock Hobbs and Graeme Mourie, among others - would be extinct under these rules.

Rugby's stifling, boneheaded laws governing the God-awful breakdown and offside laws do need to be changed. Just not this way. Under them, a breakdown is deemed to be formed when only one attacking player is over the tackled ball on the ground. From that moment, no player can touch the ball with their hands.

So the only opportunity for a McCaw-like turnover is for a defending player to get to the breakdown before the first attacker arrives. The tackler can't bound to his feet and grab the ball from the tackled player; he must now retreat. However, his team-mates can drive in and roll over the top of the tackled player, winning the ball that way.

The intention is to rid the game of the profusion of penalties accruing from confusion at ruck and maul and associated ills like entering from the side. With the no-hands rule, the lawmakers are trying to reinvigorate the lost, much-lamented art of rucking, hoping players arriving in mass will steamroll over the ball to win possession. Player safety is another consideration, reducing the big collisions in the only part of the game a hallowed rugby rule (thou shalt not tackle a man without the ball) is ignored: the clean-out.

So here's the evidence so far after watching, admittedly, only a few Mitre 10 matches.

Rucking isn't really happening. Most teams so far are not contesting at the breakdown or minimally so, preferring to fan out across the field and use defensive pressure to stimulate mistakes from the attacking side.

This means a fast and open game but with three downsides: a lot of mistakes; turnover skill has been replaced by errors; and the game looks increasingly like rugby league.

Rugby has always incorporated a battle for possession at scrum, lineout and breakdown/ruck. The latter now looks in danger. It is one of the great differentiating factors from other codes, the ability to wrest possession from the other side by skill as well as physical presence.

Meanwhile, in what seems a reaction to the loss of this physical exchange, the odious rolling maul is becoming more common, with its inexplicably permitted twin sins of offside and obstruction mocking the inability of the defending side to stop it legally.

In the Otago v Wellington game on Thursday night, there was not a single turnover based on skill. On the rare occasion a pack tried to drive over the ball, it was either messy, fumbled or someone kicked through. There were fewer penalties, but they were just as indecipherable. Players are still being penalised for leaving their feet or other, familiar misdemeanours. There were precious few genuine turnovers in Friday's Auckland-Northland clash, either.

The only way a ball-grubber like McCaw can use anticipation, endurance, body position and ability to resist attempts to knock him off the ball are the rare times they can get there before a single opponent arrives.

Another option is for the No 7 to be more of a "seagull", making a few tackles but hovering until a ball-snatching opportunity arises. The reality, however, is the modern game is too intense for a flock of seagulls. The change will persuade many coaches they don't need a "fetcher", preferring instead a power forward of more use on attack and/or counter-rucking.

Proof? On Friday night, Auckland chose muscular No 8 Akira Ioane as a No 7.

The changes, if they are to be ratified at all, won't come in until 2017. But there is a danger Northern Hemisphere lawmakers will see an advantage in outlawing a facet of the game at which their teams have nearly always come second. The 1977 Lions, for example, had the All Black pack stuffed, except for loose forwards Mourie, Ian Kirkpatrick and Laurie Knight.

It is far from the only series All Black loosies have won - and long may they be allowed to do so.

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