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Laws must protect the contest

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Legitimate play has become illegal based on the outcome rather than the act - Scotty Stevenson

In a game of contestable possession, laws must never act to remove the contest. The high ball kick is designed to be contestable, and must always remain so.

According to All Blacks winger Rieko Ioane, the scariest moment for any backfield player is when they leave the ground to take a kick receipt. It’s an assertion that makes perfect sense when you consider human beings weren’t designed to fly – the sight of Beauden Barrett crash landing on Saturday night after falling over French fullback Benjamin Fall the current case in point – but it is also part of the job description.

Receivers are coached to jump and catch, and have been for years. Elevating oneself above the oncoming player is naturally the best way to gain an advantage, which is why the ‘turtle’ bag comes out at training and many hours are dedicated to perfecting the play. But it comes with risks. Good kicks are designed to be chased, good high kicks are designed to be regained, and that means there will be a contest for possession, which is the very essence of the sport itself.

What happened to Barrett on Saturday night in Wellington was lamentable. No one wants to see players hit the deck like that, least of all Benjamin Fall, the man who was subsequently given his marching orders for what can best be described as ‘not jumping’. As trite as that sounds, that is ostensibly his crime. He chased well, didn’t take his eyes of the ball, was checked as he attempted to climb for the catch himself, and collided with Barrett who was already four feet in the air.

Ask yourself: who or what is in control of anything at that point in time? Not Barrett. Not Fall. Not even gravity. It is, as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen rightly surmised, “a dynamic part of the game” and as much as the end result was sickening to watch, the true impact of that moment will reverberate much farther than just around the inside of Barrett’s noggin.

This is not really about a catch, it’s about a catch-all, a set of laws that have been written with the right intent, but adjudicated with no genuine feel for context. A player can leap into anything these days, with very little instinct for self preservation, and feel confident that they will draw the foul. I put it to you that a guy who doesn’t leave the ground has just as much right to catch the ball as a player who does. The law seems to say otherwise, and that’s a dangerous precedent, an unravelling of the very fabric of the game.

This is not the first time the law has conspired against the very game it is designed to protect. Over the last four years the ‘intentional knock-down’ law has been bastardised to effectively remove the defensive intercept from rugby. Whereas once upon a time the law distinguished between a fair attempt and a negative act (and still in theory does) referees have now concluded that any failed intercept attempt is a penalisable offence. That is not right. Not by any measure.

A player in defence should be entitled to have a crack at the ball and most intercept attempts of this nature start with a single hand reaching out to cut off a pass. It is anathema to the spirit of the sport to penalise the player who fails to regather that attempt. If you aren’t good enough as an attacker to time your pass to beat the man, then suck it up and work on your own play. In defending these rulings, more than one referee says they view it as a ‘risk or reward’ scenario. If you end up catching the ball, then all power to you. If you don’t, well, expect to be penalised.

The irony here is rich. Under this guiding philosophy, a legitimate play becomes illegal based on the outcome rather than the act. Which is daft. As was the red card for Benjamin Fall on Saturday night. The laws, and the adjudication of them, must be revised with a mind to protect the sanctity of the eternal contest. That is something we should all be jumping up and down for, regardless of how hard the landing might be.

In other news…

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Legitimate play has become illegal based on the outcome rather than the act - Scotty Stevenson