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'One common set of laws is no longer appropriate across pro and amateur rugby'

By Paul Smith
Former Premiership referee JP Doyle (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Professional rugby union is now in its second quarter-century and never before has such an emphasis been placed on adapting the laws to enhance safety.

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But is it now time to seriously question whether one seamless set of laws remains a viable approach across the entire sport?

No-one doubts for a second that professional clubs including those in the Premiership and United Rugby Championship take their welfare responsibilities seriously.

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Concussion spotters and compulsory recovery protocols were science fiction only ten years ago, while the levels of game-day support provided by medical professionals are now as impressive as they are thorough.

The focus which currently surrounds serious injury – and in particular head contact – is both understandable and justifiable.

After all, shocking reports that nine players from the relatively recent past – including World Cup winner Steve Thompson and internationals Alix Popham and Michael Lipman – face early-onset dementia plus other brain-related issues have in the last year horrified rugby followers across the globe.

Away from the public eye, the sport’s administrators are also doing their bit to make the sport safer as the recent crackdown on reckless play has evidenced. There will be no more Danny Grewcocks or Bakkies Bothas in an era when non-intentional head contact can earn you a red card.

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The extent of this focus has been underlined in the last few weeks by World Rugby’s global law trials initiative which has introduced five changes. After making their bow in the Rugby Championship, all of these will be seen for the first time in the UK and Ireland in the coming weeks.

And it tells us much about the mindset and focus of those at the top of the sport that three of the five are all about improving player safety in the breakdown and tackle.

Rugby union has always prided itself on having one set of laws applicable to every adult playing the game, but 26 years after the sport left the amateur era surely it is now time to slaughter this sacred cow.

Those of us old enough to remember World Rugby head honcho Bill Beaumont as an early 1980’s Fylde and England second row recall he was widely known as ‘Big Bill.’

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But at 6ft 2 and around 15 stone he was barely bigger than Owen Farrell or Elliot Daly.

Today’s professional players are full-time athletes who spend their working week preparing their bodies and minds for around 110 minutes of colossal physical impacts.

The professional game is underpinned by huge coaching, analytical and medical resources which leave no stone unturned, while we also have full-time paid referees.

As the ever-changing law book and list of directives indicates, rugby union is desperately trying to keep up with this physiological and technical progress.

Put another way, World Rugby is trying to find a way in which 46 elite-level, 18-stone muscle-bound athletes can smash into each other for two hours without getting badly hurt.

But is this change really necessary – or helpful – for those who play the sport at a recreational level?

I am sure I am far from alone in finding ever fewer parallels than ever before between the rugby played by my local club’s third XV or veterans’ side and what we all see on our TV screens.

Is it therefore necessary – for example – to insist on large numbers of front row replacements in low level league games when this may hinder a club’s ability to field a third or fourth team.

And while the goal-line drop out may improve the spectacle at Premiership level, it will probably have the opposite effect on a pitch ankle-deep in mud where the ball won’t bounce for the kicker and discouraging an effective driving maul depowers the main try-scoring threat.

France have already taken a step in this direction – albeit for safety reasons – by introducing uncontested scrums and a waist-height tackle regulation for all amateur rugby. This suggests it is far from compulsory for all unions to stick rigidly to World Rugby’s laws.

Former Premiership referee David Rose came through the recreational game as a player and coach with Walsall and Handsworth before cutting his officiating teeth around Warwickshire’s local clubs.

And while he stops short of supporting a call for separate law books for the amateur and professional games, he supports some adaptation.

“Most law changes are designed to speed the game up and improve the spectacle,” he said.

“But if you go and ask a local club third team player if he wants that he’ll almost certainly tell you that impressing the two men and a dog who are watching isn’t why he’s there.

“So while I get the philosophy about having a ‘seamless’ game from the local park to the world’s top arenas, I do think some thinking is required as in reality we’ve had two separate games for a while.

“The challenge is deciding where you have the divide – that would also be different in every country. For instance, some National One clubs in England aspire to be professional and would face shifting from one law book to another if they got promoted to the Championship.

“Instead of making wholesale changes maybe there are elements which only apply at professional level.

“To take a current example you could not apply the goal-line drop out and 50:20 below the National Leagues. In the women’s and under-19 games we have law variations so it would be an extension of that. It then becomes nuanced rather than widespread change.”

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'One common set of laws is no longer appropriate across pro and amateur rugby'

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