By Paul Dobson
Change the laws and you change the game. Add in ways of playing that are not laws and you have, perhaps, set the game on an unhappy road.
And this may be the case with altered laws to make a scrum-half’s life easier.
In the beginning it was not so, not easy at all.
When the game moved from hill and dale and from the streets of a town to the playing fields of great schools, it achieved a measure of control and even laws to regulate the way the game could be played.
The laws were important, for they determined what sort of game it was. Tiddlywinks and rugby differ because the laws/rules of the games differ.
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When the game got to schools its aim (goal) changed. Instead of taking the game’s prize (later a ball) back to the leader’s house, it was taken forward to the opponents’ house. It was a game that took the ball forward – a game for forwards. But as they marched forward they left a player back at the home goal to guard it. He was the whole way back, fully back, the full-back. They filled the space, growing with the forward advance, with two players who were half-way back, the half-backs whose main task was to fall on the ball if the opponents broke back. For their trouble they risked been manhandled, especially by flaying boots.
Then there were players three-quarter way back, the three quarters, and the game developed.
Into the 20th century, the two half-backs would take turns to be close to the forwards or away from them. Then along came the famous Harlequin, Adrian Stoop, and he developed different responsibilities for each half, one called the scrum-half, who was close to the forwards, and the other further away, called sometimes the out-half or stand-off half or fly-half or, in New Zealand, the 1st five-eighth from the fraction between a half and a three-quarter.
The post-Stoop scrum-half was to be a link between forwards and backs. In essence it was to take the precious ball which the forwards won and give it to the fly-half. This he did under great pressure from the opposing forwards. It took great skill and courage to be a scrumhalf.
'I suppose when I look back now, what the f*k was I thinking? The whole thing was my own doing. But do I regret it? Do I f*k.'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 23, 2019
A lawyer in the Boland town of Moorreesburg developed the dive pass to get the ball and his passing actions safely away from the forwards while being able to look at and concentrate on the fly-half. The lawyer’s name was Freddie Luyt. The man who developed the dive pass and made it famous was Danie Craven.
It had its place in the game though it was criticised for taking the scrum-half off his feet and out of the game. That meant that there was a place for the standing pass. But the standing pass rendered the scrum-half more exposed to opposing marauders, and so changes were made to the law to create greater space and security for the scrum-half. What he did for himself now became the law’s responsibility.
The scrumhalf was vulnerable for years because there was no offside line at the ruck. In fact there was nothing defined as or regulated as a ruck.
It is not till 1964 that the ruck came into the laws and then it was called the loose scrum. And in that loose scrum, the ball was the offside line. Which meant that opponents intent on laying waste the scrum-half could advance on him as the ball moved backwards towards him.
Then it got its own name from ancient Norsemen – a ruck, a jumble of players fighting for the ball. And inevitably this new concept got laws and an increasingly important place in rugby football. A wise old priest who coached rugby at Blackrock College in Dublin, Father Anthony Hampson, once proclaimed: “After the grace of God, the most important thing in life is quick ball from a ruck.”
Then along came changes that sought to protect the scrum-half, but which gave birth to the deliberately slow ruck, the scrum-half standing rolling the ball under the sole of a boot, the scrum-half with hands on the ball and foot back for as he prepares to kick. There is even a bit of non-law that is applied – that the ruck is not over even if the scrum-half has hands on the ball until the scrum-half lifts the ball.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 23, 2019
The dive pass is rarely used nowadays when the scrum-half has greater protection. No longer is the ball the offside line.
Now passing the ball as accurately as possible – in front and at waist high – is no longer the scrum-half’s prime responsibility. He came to be praised and received awards for kicking, running and tackling whether or not he could pass the ball quickly and accurately. The laws now give him room to pick the ball up and take paces before shovelling the ball at some targeted player, cutting down the space to potential creators of opportunities and leaving them vulnerable to rush defence.
But instead of creating more space for a more creative game, it may well have dumbed the game down to predictable repetition and tedium. The statistic of more ball in play may be a misleading one. Phases are counted but in effect they are often the same phases repeated, sometimes more than 15 times in one sequence.
Look at the World Cup Final, arguably the top match of four years of rugby.
The ball came back to the scrum-halves something like 137 times. The scrum-halves kicked 16 times – that new rugby phenomenon the box-kick, aided and abetted by restricting the mark/fair catch to within the defenders 22. Each scrum-half ran with the ball twice. They passed it 119 times – 62 times to a forward, 34 times to the fly-half and 23 times to another back. More than half the passes were to a forward.
It may well not have been what law-makers intended or wanted. It may well be an example of the law of unintended consequences.
It may just be a better idea to suggest that the ruck is over when the scrum-half plays the ball, i.e. touches it by hand or foot.
It may even be enough to apply an existing law.
Law 15 DURING A RUCK
11. Once a ruck has formed, no player may handle the ball unless they were able to get their hands on the ball before the ruck formed and stay on their feet.
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