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FEATURE How the forward pass has tied rugby up in knots

How the forward pass has tied rugby up in knots
1 year ago

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then the chances are it’s a duck, right? Can we all agree on that? So, for example, if the Federal Government’s missing fifteen boxes of highly sensitive, top secret, classified information and the FBI unearth said boxes in your Palm Beach pile, you shouldn’t expect a Grand Jury to take too long to discount reasonable doubt and assume reasonable inference. In the legal vernacular, you’re a puppy sitting next to a pile of pooh.

A simple enough concept? Alas, not in rugby where, when we’re considering the forward pass, we appear to have taken a perfectly straight piece of rope and turned it into a Gordian knot. It wasn’t ever the case but, as things stand, it’s where we now are; namely, a pass that travels forward is deemed to be forward only if it’s intentionally thrown forward – ‘forward’ being defined as towards the opposition’s dead-ball line – whereas if the pass is not intentionally thrown forward – in other words, the passer’s hands are not facing forward – it’s deemed to be backward irrespective of whether the pass ultimately travels forward or backward. If you need a minute to reread that, please, feel free. I’ll put the kettle on. Milk and sugar?

Why does rugby choose to complicate what’s, otherwise, effortlessly straightforward? The single, simple ABC tenet of the game – the ball cannot be passed forwards – is now an alphabet soup where cod science has superseded common- sense. And what we end up with – to pick the most recent example from one of the fattest files in the sport – is South Africa’s Damien Willemse firing a long, looping try-scoring pass to Makozole Mapimpi in the game against New Zealand last weekend, a pass which, excuse me, was two metres forward. Don’t get me wrong: sublime skill and breath-taking vision from a gem of a player and, under the present laws, all absolutely above board but nevertheless – ahem – a forward pass.

Clean Doris
The professional game is played at breakneck speed and on occasion the ball can travel forwards (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Look, I get the science and the mathematical theorems. The Law of Relative Velocity, right? Is that the one you’re referring to? The apple core out of the car window? Yes, I hear you. And while you’re there, don’t forget Angular Dynamics, Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion (aka, The Law of Inertia), Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and, last but not least, Galilean Transformation, which – as I’m sure we all know – is a set of classical equations that relate to the space and time co- ordinates of two objects moving at a constant velocity relative to each other and which formally express the ideas that (a) space and time are absolute; (b) that length, time and mass are independent of the relative motion of the observer but that (c) the speed of light depends on the relative motion of the observer. Again, if you need a second bite at that paragraph, no problem: I’ll make another cup of tea.

But if we’re sprinkling some science into the argument, why stop there? Consider, if you will, that even when you’re standing still, the rotation of the Earth means that, depending on your latitude, you’re actually travelling at speeds of up to 1,037mph; relative to the Sun, you’re galloping along at close on 66,227mph and relative to the rest of the galaxy, you’re looking at something touching 500,000mph, all of which means that every pass rugby’s ever thrown – cosmically speaking – has been forward and if every pass is forward then no pass can be forward – because if nothing is ever backwards, forwards has neither meaning or relevance – and therefore there’d be no philosophical, scientific or legal difference between Damien Willemse handing Makazole Mapimpi a perfectly horizontal one-metre pop pass or tossing him a thirty-metre Hail Mary into the All Black end-zone. Kettle’s back on, by the way.

Referees getting a burly, six-strong escort off the pitch when they’ve buggered it up is, in itself, a tough one to take but when they’ve got it spot on, it’s intolerable

All I’m saying here is, can we just get back to the looks, walks, quacks, ‘Bugger Me, It’s A Duck’ method of determining what’s a forward pass and what isn’t? So if Player ‘B’ catches a pass from Player ‘A’ ahead of the point at which Player ‘A’ throws it, it’s forward and, frankly, sod the science. Why? Well, because the science, as discussed, is the Devil’s scripture and because, even if it wasn’t, the definition of a forward pass becomes transparent, obvious and drop dead simple for everyone to immediately understand; crowds, referees, players, coaches and, who knows, maybe even mince-witted journalists such as myself.

This last point is the crux of the issue; transparency and simplicity. Some years back, Racing took on Clermont- Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Michelin in a Heineken quarter final and Racing’s Dan Carter threw a peach of a ‘forward’ pass – Willemse-esque – to Marc Andreu for the game-winning score. Referee Wayne Barnes, correctly, referred it to the TMO who, just as correctly, confirmed that Carter’s hands weren’t facing forward and under the laws of the game – and of Relative Velocity – it was a try. Inevitably, it took a tedious two minutes to sort out but, technically, the officials are right.

Except that 16,000 ‘Jaunards’ had been watching the same replays as the referee on ‘le grand e?cran’ and, while they could hear nothing of his conversation with the TMO, they could clearly see Andreu receiving the pass a metre and a half ahead of Carter, all of which led to Barnes – putting it very politely – being roundly raspberried. Referees getting a burly, six-strong escort off the pitch when they’ve buggered it up is, in itself, a tough one to take but when they’ve got it spot on, it’s intolerable.

Dan Carter
Dan Carter’s debatable pass for Racing 92 against Clermont Auvergne caused a stir with the home crowd (FRANCK PENNANT/Getty Images)

Of course, you could argue that the good people of Clermont- Ferrand need to revisit the law book and wise up and you’d have a point. But as correct as the decision was in terms of the laws of the game, it was ‘un canard absolu’ and proof positive that Mr. Bumble was right. The law IS an ass. Indeed, when you stand there by the side of the pitch and watch an ugly and unnecessary disconnection between one of the world’s best referees and one of the world’s finest sets of supporters, your rugby soul gently weeps.

Suppose, just for one ludicrous moment, that the Springboks had been playing New Zealand last weekend not in Johannesburg but at the Sportsground in Connacht. Yes, yes, I know, but bear with me here. Let’s also suppose that South Africa are playing with the prevailing Atlantic gale and the horizontal hailstones – just another summer’s day in giddy Galway – and Willemse’s pass – again, leaving his hands

backwards – catches the storm-force wind and is gathered by Mapimpi not two metres beyond the point of release but ten. Is it now a forward pass? No, it isn’t. Why? Because – still – ‘intention trumps outcome’ although, had this been the moment that decided the game, you suspect ‘The New Zealand Herald’ might have come up with a slightly pithier headline for the next day’s front page.

Unintentionally impeding an incoming tackler or accidentally levelling a full-back as he’s jumping for a high ball is a little like telling the magistrate you didn’t spot the bemused bloke at the pelican crossing who bounced off your bonnet

One eminent rugby official I contacted described this scenario as a ‘quirk of the law’ and he’s absolutely right. But doubtless there are plenty who’d go further and call it a steaming contradiction. Certainly, you’d be hard pressed to find any other clause in the rugby law book where an innocent intention outweighed a negative outcome. If you inadvertently stray offside, accidentally drop a scrum, unwittingly topple off your feet in a ruck or – here’s the rub – if your perfectly straight line-out throw gets wafted by the wind into the paws of your tail-end jumper, trust me, Luke Pearce isn’t going to waste too much time waiting for your lawyer to turn up with a briefcase of mitigations.

And quite rightly so. Unintentionally impeding an incoming tackler or accidentally levelling a full-back as he’s jumping for a high ball is a little like telling the magistrate you didn’t spot the 30mph sign/the red light/the bus lane or the bemused bloke at the pelican crossing who bounced off your bonnet. You’re cutting absolutely no ice at all here and, what’s more, I have the points on my driving licence to prove it.

Luke Pearce
However contentious the pass, Luke Pearce is obliged to follow the letter of the law (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

And, to return to the ‘forward’ pass, how about considering all this from the referee’s point of view? Back in the day, all they had to work out was the trajectory of the ball: was it backwards, flat or forward? Now, they’re not only considering (a) trajectory but (b) the relative positions of the passer and the receiver, (c) the momentum of the passer relative to the receiver and (d) the direction of the passer’s hands and leading arm; what’s more they’re being asked to do all this in a split-second and since that’s nigh on impossible in the blur of a high-speed game, we end up referring the evidence to the TMO’s slide-rule, needlessly complicating the issue for all concerned.

Enough already. Look, if there’s any room for doubt, favour the attacking team because the game needs all the continuity it can get but can we, please, just boil this down to something that’s explicit to the naked eye; namely, if the ball’s caught ahead of the point at which it’s passed, we’re having a scrum, defending team’s put-in. Looks, walks, quacks, simples.


John 666 days ago

Nope 100% wrong and showing a complete lack of understanding on both the laws of the game and physics. When a ball is passed at pace it will always move forward due to the pace of the runner, so a ball passed straight, or even backwards can easily be caught forward from where it was passed. In addition any spin on the ball or wind can affect the flight path. The law is very clear "A player must not intentionally throw or pass the ball forward". Forward is towards the opposition dead ball line so as long as the ball is not thrown or passed forward then where it ends up, either through the spin of the ball, the forward motion of the passer, wind or anything else it is not a forward pass.

Drew 672 days ago

New Zealand were scoring off forward passes for fun a couple of years back and when the Bok supporters complained you journalists all started talking about backwards out of the hnd so frankly you only have yourselves to blame. Ive always thought the forward out of the hand subjectivity was a pile of tosh. A fwd pss is a fwd pass, but hey ho trust a journo like you to ignore it until the Boks do it.

flyinginsectshrimp 672 days ago

I want a refund for my RugbyPass+ subscription, and the 5 hours I wasted reading this dribble.

Poorfour 672 days ago

It’s very simple: we have a choice of which Laws we want to fudge here if we want a game that’s actually playable.

We can fudge the Laws of Rugby, or we can fudge the Laws of Physics.

Despite the author’s long tirade about the latter, it’s really very simple. At the point of release, the ball is moving forward at the same speed as the passer. When the passer is moving at full pace, that’s faster than he can throw the ball backwards.

Even if a pass looks backwards, if it was made at anything much above walking pace, it will actually have gone forwards.

There’s a clip easily available on YouTube that demonstrates this: two guys run on a grid, passing to each other. Time and again, the pass looks backwards but goes forwards.

In the clearest example, the passer throws the ball directly backwards over his own head - but it still moves forwards relative to the ground.

You cannae change the Laws o’physics, Cap’n.

That leaves us with three options:

  1. Play walking rugby only
  2. Judge passes on what “looks” right
  3. Apply a standard that is independent of speed
(2) is what feels intuitively right, but it has major problems. Especially at speed, a pass can look backwards but still go forwards. We are really, really bad at judging it without some sort of reference point.

The most typical reference point is the passer. If the passer continues to run and is in front of the ball when it’s caught, our brain goes “that went backwards”. But if the passer gets tackled just after passing, our brains scream “forwards!” - so the same pass gets adjudged in two different ways depending on what the defence does…

…follow that to its conclusion and not only do we have inconsistency but we’re creating a big incentive to make late hits.

The other reference point is a line on the pitch. If two players are moving at speed and happen to be crossing a line when the ball is passed, it will look much more forward than if they made it between the lines. So again, we end up judging passes that are objectively the same in different ways.

Which is why refs are told to look at the hands. Hands are a relatively objective thing to check, they’re independent of speed and position of the pitch and - perhaps most importantly - they reflect where the receiver was.

The thing to remember is that ALL passes made at pace are forward passes in physics terms, but only some of them look forward to the human brain. Looking at the hands is the simplest way we have to treat passes consistently.

Nickers 673 days ago

This was not a good article. Does the author understand anything he wrote? When he says "Look, I get the science and the mathematical theorems. The Law of Relative Velocity, right? Is that the one you’re referring to? The apple core out of the car window? Yes, I hear you." It's very, very clear that he doesn't get it, and doesn't hear you. It's the equivalent of saying people can fly - "Look I get the science - gravity, I hear you. But birds fly by flapping their wings, so don't give me all this science mumbo jumbo that clearly explains why humans can't fly by flapping"

The fact that images of Donald Trump are conjured is not surprising - If you deny science that makes it go away right?

If some passes the ball while they are running forwards it is IMPOSSIBLE for the ball to be caught BEHIND where it was passed - Why? Because the ball is travelling forwards at the same speed as the player!!! It is literally IMPOSSIBLE for the ball to travel backwards relative to the point on the field it was passed.

This is actually not a difficult theory to understand. What you are suggesting is that the ball can only be passed when the passer is completely stationery or moving very slowly - I would certainly take a rule that 1% of the population don't understand because they deny science exists over the game being suggested in the article - It already exists and it's called netball.

Potamus 673 days ago


mark 674 days ago

My 2cents is simplify to what fans and viewers can easily understand i.e. If the receiver catches the ball ahead of the passer then it is forward. Eliminate TMO reviews. It does not matter if there is a 50mph wind blowing the ball forward or spin on the ball swerving the ball forward it is still forward. Crooked lineout throws are not straight regardless of the wind or other causes and the thrower has to adjust or its a free kick.

Robert 674 days ago

I need a cup of tea after that.

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