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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simple ABC tenet of the game – the ball cannot be passed forwards – is now an alphabet soup where cod science has superseded common- sense.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.


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