A question arose this week between referees about a situation that occurred in the Ruapehu vs Kaierau Division 1 match last weekend in Ohakune.
The play occurred when a player in the ruck unbound from the ruck, turned and picked up the ball, which was behind him, before charging off upfield.
The coach of the team concerned maintained that it was smart play and was being used regularly by players during Super Rugby games, as seen on TV.
It certainly generated quite a debate between referees at their meeting, with possible outcomes varying from fair play, possible offside or hands in the ruck.
How could seven referees come up with three different possible rulings for this play?
The answer lies in the way the new, improved, and shortened version Law Book has been written.
The definition of a ruck remains the same – a phase of play when one or more players from each team are on their feet and in physical contact, with the ball on the ground between them.
Joining a ruck remains the same as for many years.
Players joining the ruck must be on their feet and join behind the offside line.
They may join alongside, but not in front of the hindmost player of their team in the ruck.
They must bind onto a team mate or an opponent, though generally they bind onto a team mate.
Interestingly, the bind must precede or be simultaneous with contact with any other part of the body.
The binding action of players at higher levels of the game often seems pretty dubious to me, especially when they are attempting to "bind" onto an opponent.
How often do you see players dive into the ruck, head and shoulders first, in an attempt to move opposition players away from where the ball is?
The key element for players joining or not joining the ruck is the offside line, and this is where the debate at the referees' meeting centred.
The offside line is an imaginary line, parallel to the goal line, through the hindmost foot of players in a team in the ruck.
When a ruck forms, players must either join the ruck or retire behind their offside line.
They should not hang around the fringes and in front of that line.
Such players are referred to as "guard dogs" and their job is to protect their halfback from the very fast opposing flankers, who might have aspirations of disrupting him when the ball emerges from the ruck.
Once a player has joined the ruck he should stay there, with the purpose of helping his team win the ball.
Or, he can leave the ruck and retire behind the offside line at the hindmost foot of his teammates still in the ruck.
This usually happens if it is clear his team are unlikely to win the ball in the ruck.
During the ruck, all players must endeavour to stay on their feet. Players cannot handle the ball.
They may play the ball with their feet, but not pick it up with their feet.
This last action I have yet to see, but for some reason it has been in the Law Book for more than the fifty years I have blown the whistle.
Possession can be won by either rucking the ball back with the feet, or by pushing the opponents off the ball.
Now, what happened at Ohakune was a player in the ruck, with the ball behind him but still within the confines of the ruck, unbound from it, turned to face his goal line and picked the ball up.
He then turned around again with the ball and took off for the opponent's tryline.
The ball was not at the back of the ruck before it was picked up.
Some referees argued that by un-binding while the ball was behind him, this meant the ball was clear of the ruck.
If the ruck had ended then the player was entitled to turn and pick it up.
Others argued that by un-binding from the ruck, the player had left in front of the ball, so should have retired behind the offside line before playing the ball.
He was therefore offside and this is what I think the referee ruled on the day.
The ball has to come clear of the feet of players in the ruck before being lifted up by a player from behind the offside line and not in the ruck.
A former top local referee (at least in the old Northern sub-union) was Colin Pedley, who I used to share a car with to meetings in Taihape and sometimes to referee matches when I was living in the Ohakune area in the late 1970's.
We had some great conversations and debates during those trips and I have a very clear memory of him saying during one of those debates, "if it doesn't look right [on the field] then it probably isn't."
This situation as described doesn't seem to be covered by any specific reference in the Law Book. It didn't look right.
In this case, we need to use common sense and read between the lines.
In the end at the meeting, the referees agreed to rule offside if a player un-binds from a ruck and picks the ball up before it has emerged from the ruck.
But I think we will refer it to NZ Rugby for clarification anyway, just to be sure.