Snout's Report: Maul Law Reform - Green and Gold Rugby
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Snout’s Report: Maul Law Reform

Snout’s Report: Maul Law Reform

So here’s a story about maul law reform we’ve been sitting on for a few weeks now.

Green & Gold Rugby’s unparalleled network of sources can tell you that moves have been afoot at the highest levels to more strictly enforce the existing laws on maul formation. The World Cup referees attended a pow-wow in France a few weeks ago. Our sources there tell us mauls were overwhelming the main topic of discussion.

The result is two World Rugby directives governing maul refereeing  and a couple of other directives which, though attracting less attention right now, could be important on the field in the coming months.

Maul

The issue here is binding. First, referees were instructed that players joining the maul must do so alongside or behind the ball carrier. Of course, this has always been the law, it just hasn’t been policed effectively.

The relevant law here is 17.4 (c):

Players joining the maul. Players joining a maul must do so from behind the foot of the hindmost team-mate in the maul. The player may join alongside this player [the hindmost team-mate]. If the player joins the maul from the opponents’ side, or in front of the hindmost team-mate, the player is offside.” (Italics added.)

The second guideline directs referees to ensure the maul ripper is bound to the maul during maul formation.

Consequences

It’s fair to expect that both of these areas will now be policed very actively. Remember the new “daylight” call at the ruck a few years back; refs couldn’t wait to show their awareness and convey that to the players. Hopefully it’s the same thing here.

In particular, the first directive would seem to cover off-set mauls, where the non-lifting and non-jumping player never gets the ball, but is simply designed as the new battering ram in a parallel channel. This is often known as “changing lanes”.

Equally, the first directive would seem to cover the secondary formation of a maul. If the defence shears off some attacking players and they seek to rejoin, they no longer can do so at the weak spots in the maul (ie. in front of the ball carrier). See for instance number 17 at 0:16 in this clip, and number 3 at 0:35 too:

Eagle eyes will spot number 17 actually illegally joins in front of the ball the first time at 0:06 too. Teams are going to have to realise that launching a maul now carries a risk of conceding a penalty, not just getting legally held up and turned over.

The second directive will obviously only affect the initial maul. Refs will be on the look-out for “floating” rippers who take the ball and then wander backwards under the arms of the incoming forwards.

Mauls have become a major attacking weapon over the last 18 months or so. The Brumbies have scored three maul tries in a match three times this year. Two of South Africa’s three top try scorers in the competition this year are maul rippers. And so on. In short, South Africa, Ireland, and England will not welcome this change looking towards the World Cup. Australia and NZ will.

Other Directives

A few other directives were mentioned too.

Cleanouts around the neck

Will be clamped down on (so to speak); penalty sanction. Australian teams generally don’t use this type of clean-out, but South African teams certainly do.

High Tackles

Not a lot new here, just increased vigilance. Even pretty innocuous contact with the head will now be penalised; tackles will need to be lower. Will Skelton: observe.

Contests in the air

Israel Folau Flys for ball

This needed a lot of clarification, as we’ve seen plenty of unfair outcomes here which, given the nature of the offence, seriously affect the result of the match.

A fair challenge with both players in a realistic position to catch the ball will be play on – even if one of the players lands dangerously. A fair challenge with wrong timing and no pulling down of the player in the air will be a penalty only. An illegal challenge [which I take to mean no eyes on the ball, but this is not clarified in the new directives] resulting in no real contest and a player being pulled down and landing on his back or side will be a yellow card. Finally, an illegal challenge resulting in no real contest and a player landing on his head, neck, or shoulder, will be a red card.

The difference between landing on your “side” and your “shoulder” is very thin indeed, but would carry important consequences. It isn’t crystal clear what “pulled down” means, but I imagine the key variable here is going to be eyes on the ball. If you don’t have eyes on the ball, you’re in risky territory.

Scrums

Feeds must be straight, or in World Rugby lingo “credible”. Refs will be all over this. The guideline they’re instructed to use is: Are the scrummie’s shoulders parallel to the scrum?

Also, more emphasis on getting the ball out. If the scrum “is or is becoming” stationary, and the ball is at the 8’s feet, the ref is instructed to call “use it”. This means no second shove.

The Bottom Line

The Wallaby set-up will be not unhappy with the new directives. They don’t use mauls much, they don’t use the up-and-under, and they’re not looking to keep the ball in the scrum forever. The crooked feed issue is going to be interesting; every 9 in the world is less than pious on this one. I suspect with the renewed emphasis from 2013-14 on hooking the ball, denying the attacking team a bit of leeway with the feed will further tilt the balance in favour of the non-feeding team… which is obviously not ideal.

Overall, though, it’s good news for Australian rugby.

The text of the new directives, along with some helpful video, can be found here: http://laws.worldrugby.org/index.php?domain=9&language=EN

  • Hugh Cavill

    The ‘use it’ call in the back of the scrum could be great for us. Will stop the bigger NH packs holding the ball in and waiting for a technical error from one of our props to take the scrum to ground (as they did at times in the 3rd Lions test). It will hopefully make the scrum less of an attacking weapon.

    • Simon

      Yes, that was my thought too – this is possibly even better news for us than the maul reforms, at least if you go on past form against the Lions and last year’s Spring Tour. Unless of course our scrum improves vastly with Slipper & Holmes as props, in which case it might not matter so much.

      Interesting, too, that these changes (except the ones relating to safety) all seem to generally benefit Australia and NZ, a few months before a NH RWC. A lot of the cynics here on GAGR were suggesting maul reform wouldn’t occur til after it.

      • Lindommer

        About bloody time! Another of those Laws which’ve been honoured more in the breach than the observance over the last few decades, especially by NH teams and refs. The Definitions in Law 20 CLEARLY state: “The purpose of the scrum is to restart play quickly, safely and fairly, after a minor infringement or a stoppage.”

        How this endless holding the ball in the scrum to milk a penalty eventuated I don’t know.

        • AlanDownunder

          Yes indeed. Weird how ‘unsafe play’ is (was, let’s hope) hyped to the max in relation to mauls but utterly ignored in relation to rucks and scrums.

      • Mike

        “Unless of course our scrum improves vastly with Slipper & Holmes as props”

        Why would it? Holmes at test level is an unknown quantity (at least since 2007!) but Slipper was part of the poor scrums on 2014 EOYT that caused Cheika to call for an overhaul of Australian scrummaging. The Queensland scrum has been good, and the Tahs scrum much improved, which is a tribute to the work of Stiles and Ledesma respectively, but there are no silver bullets.

        In any case, changing props is not the way to improve a scrum in most cases – the issue is usually with the pack as a whole.

        • Who?

          Slipper was generally subbed before the scrums really started going to pot, and Skelton was subbed onto the field to make them go backwards really quickly…
          Our scrum, with the huge improvement shown by Skelton this year and the new focus on the good work done by Holmes over the past couple of years, along with a fit Scott Sio, could actually be pretty reasonable this year.

        • Keith Butler

          Re the Reds v Tahs game, I was surprised that even with a 40kg weight disadvantage the Reds scrum easily handled the Tahs in the first half at least and that further more the Tahs were more under pressure at TH even with Skelton and Potgeiter. Says something of a lack of technique to me.

        • Simon

          Maybe. But I think there are grounds for optimism that the scrum will improve significantly on 2013/14. The Reds’ scrum this year hasn’t just been good, it’s been dominant when Slipper and Holmes have been on (even when the pack was outweighed by 50kg), and only started to flag when one or both of them is off, which suggests they were the key to its effectiveness.

          International level is of course a tougher challenge, but the issue is not so much about actually winning tighthead scrums as it is about simply not collapsing them and conceding penalties. That was our Achilles’ Heel against the Lions and on the Spring Tour.

        • RobC

          The problem with Slips and Kepu in EOYT were the quality of the scrum pods behind them. Also, they here ground into the dust by being over worked.

    • Keith Butler

      I have seen many a S15 packs with superior scrum use that tactic in 5m attacking scrums. In order to prevent a pushover try the defending props drop the scrum, a deliberate and not a techjnical error and are penalised with a penalty try. What is wrong with that.

    • brumby runner

      I think it wont be long before the better scrums work out a way around the new directives. How many times, for instance, have we seen scrums in the Super XV sit for quite a few seconds with the ball either in the tunnel or just behind the hooker’s feet. I can easily see a strong scrum doing this on purpose for say 10 – 20 seconds and then putting a huge push on when the other side is starting to feel the pinch. I expect weaker scrums to be dismantled just as easily under the new directives as they are presently.

      • DrewB

        Law doesn’t state no 8s feet. Just the scrum being stationary. Depends on how this is going to be interpreted

    • RobC

      They will adjust. .They will keep it in 2nd row before the 2nd shove

  • Properly enforced, I see nothing but good things for rugby as a whole here. Good job referees panel.

    • Chinese Dave

      The key here, as you correctly identified, is “properly enforced”. One can only hope so, especially from the SA/NH refs. Personally, I’m not optimistic, as there’s too much vested interested in the current way mauls and scrums are being refereed, and those interests lie with the more powerful nations (SA, England, Ireland).

  • Braveheart81

    One aspect of the maul that I think needs to be policed more heavily is the ball being transferred back before the lineout catcher has even landed on the ground. The defending team has to have some chance of sacking the maul before it starts.

    The maul is a powerful attacking weapon and whilst these offences are generally very technical, they have to be enforced to ensure there is a fair contest.

    • Hugh Cavill

      Yeah the Brumbies have been guilty of this at times, like here:

      • Bobas

        You can clearly see Fardy’s legs on the ground next to the Force hooker’s arms.

        • Braveheart81

          Unless he’s 8 feet tall, that can’t be him.

        • Chris M

          And with a broken spine. The legs are facing the wrong way.

        • Bobas

          it was a tongue firmly in cheika comment

      • brumby runner

        I agree the Brumbies have done this, as have others as well, but I’m sure if it’s not pinged in the RWC all Aus fans will be thankful and happy that Fardy et al can also do it for the Wallabies. If it gets pinged, of course, get rid of it as a tactic.

      • the ardent b’stard

        thanks for that example, excellent

  • brumby runner

    Just hope we see the new guidelines followed through the RC so that teams are at least familiar with how the mauls, scrums, high balls etc will be officiated at RWC.

  • Rob

    A recent Rugby Tonight episode (BT Sport’s youtube page has it) highlighted the other new maul tactic – probably ‘changing lanes’ – where players bound on form a wall off to the side of the jumper. The ripper shifts over to them, trying to stay bound, and they effectively block for him.

    I think defenders should be able to pounce as they can at the scrum when the 8 unbinds to get the ball. If the ripper releases his arm for even a split second, he’s unbound and fair game. You see a lot of those guys now getting squeezed to the back, unbound, and re-binding when at the tail. Back in my day – which wasn’t that long ago – we transferred the ball back from player to player. Still a useful, and legal, tactic.

    • Klaus

      You see it all too often that the bloke with the ball becomes unbound (up to his shoulder) and then comes back in. Should be an instant penatly for obstruction.

  • Brendan Hume

    The maul has really become a challenge to referee – I’d love to see a use it call as soon as the maul is stationary or going backwards rather than allowing a second movement . Allowing teams time to set up before getting the second shove on in the maul is poison for the defending team and almost impossible to defend.

    The law regarding the contest for the ball has been a shambles as well. Some of the decision in Top 14 are cringe worthy. It’s a tough sport and while safety needs to be a priority, some pragmatism in the application of law is always the best approach.

    • I agree, teams should be rewarded for stopping a maul. They should eliminate the “use it once” call and just make it a “use it” call.

    • Braveheart81

      Too many referees are giving too much leeway to the team setting up the maul. If the maul doesn’t move instantly they should get the first call of it being stationary.

      It’s already difficult enough to defend. The attacking team shouldn’t be allowed some free set up time before the drive starts without it counting as their first call of stationary so as soon as it stops again they get a call of use it or lose it.

  • BDAUSSIE

    “Also, more emphasis on getting the ball out. If the scrum “is or is becoming” stationary, and the ball is at the 8’s feet, the ref is instructed to call “use it”. This means no second shove.” — great news for the Wobs

  • Keith Butler

    Let’s hope they also do something about ‘staying on feet’ and ‘supporting own body weight’ at ruck time as well. All teams do it NH, S15 and internationals. Players flopping on top of the ruck like a dead fish and preventing any meaningful contest for the ball.

  • The King

    Geez you’ve been on fire this week Jaime. Great writing, look forward to seeing what you’ve got coming next

  • DReido

    Your timing on this article is uncanny. A couple of days ago I tweeted to Sanzar and world rugby questioning why removing players by the head seems to be legal but head high tackles aren’t. It’s nice to know that it was already under review.

    If that’s taken out of the game, you’ll see a lot more turn overs at the ruck from the likes of Gill and Pocock damn near double.

  • theduke

    Good news if it’s followed. Whilst I appreciate the work of the forward pack, I don’t want to see the points in every game come from the same maul set play – no matter how good David Pocock is at it.

    However, I lost a lot of faith in the irb a few years ago to enforce rules for the good of the game if it conflicted with the vested interests of the home nations. I’m still bitter about that shit that went down on the Lions’ tour. #justiceforhorwill

  • John’s No.1 Fan

    Is World Rugby looking to expand
    the high tackle rules so as to apply them to Sonny Bill Williams, or is he
    still subject to the SANZAR exemption?

  • Hack Ref

    The focus on the Ripper in the maul slipping to the back! Will result in a Free Kick! Oh there goes the Brumbies number one weapon along with the Irish and the Poms. This is good news in some ways as it stops the accelerating maul to crash over the try line. Passing/smuggling the ball to the back of the maul will present ops for the likes of Big Willie and the well mannered Mr Fardy to make a real pain of himself at maul time.
    This focus makes this pretty un-defend-able play more even between attack and defence. Contest = Good Rugby.

  • Klaus

    The less the ball sits in the scrum the better. Well done World Rugby (stupid name)

  • Who?

    I’m pleased about the directive about straight feeds. But I have no confidence it’ll be applied evenly across all teams (the Pumas fed at 45º all through TRC last year, yet the teams playing against them were more scrutinised), and even less confidence that it’ll be supported by the refs ensuring the scrum is square and steady before the feed. If the scrum isn’t square and steady – GENUINELY steady – then asking for a straight feed is completely unfair. If it’s steady, then the feeding team still has an advantage – as the defending team can’t push until the scrum starts, when the ball leaves the scrumhalf’s hands.
    If we do have genuinely steady scrums, then add straight feeds and a requirement for the ball to be cleared promptly when the scrum or ball isn’t moving at the 8’s feet, then we will see the best possible outcome for scrums – good contests that only exist while there’s a genuine advantage being shown. I actually saw this in action last weekend – my club’s U11’s team was reffed in such a manner, square and steady for long enough after the set that the ref was able to walk around the back of the scrum to the far side before calling for the 9 to feed! The kids had no issues, the feeds were required to be straight, and the ball was consistently able to be hooked – before the drive (and our boys were able to push the other team back past the ball a few times). It’s a thing of beauty to watch. I just have no reason to have any confidence that’ll be refereed properly at the top level…

  • ForceFan

    Have been watching a lot of replays as just returned from vacation.
    1. Agree with the move on mauls.
    2. Cleanouts around the neck need to be sorted before someone suffers a serious injury. Everything above the shoulders gets protected in all other instances.
    3. Good luck with the feeding of the scrums. The set-ups are so low that almost impossible for hookers to compete for the ball.
    4. Shame there has been no policing of crooked throws to the Line Out as rarely getting called with contested Line Outs. Certainly an unfair advantage and competition lost.
    5. The Break Down needs a number of growing/common practices addressed:
    a) Cleaning out/tackling a player beyond the ball who isn’t even connected to the ruck.
    b) Running through beyond the ball and then simply loitering in an off-side position (Debreceni does it all the time. Quite amusing as looks very lost).
    c) Jacques Potgeiter has introduced the RSA practice of ruck cleanouts of applying a swinging forearm jolt shortly after shoulder contact – usually to some soft part of the oppositions body. A real cheap shot and going unpenalised. I note now that other Waratahs players (including Hooper) now using the same practice. A well applied tackle a feature of the game but not this thuggery.
    6. Practice of Flanker disconnecting from the scrum and pushing in on the Prop from the side. Is happening right in front of refs without any action.

  • RobC

    Thanks for the article! Yes, as you mentioned the straight feed isnt going to be a silver bullet.

  • Bay35Pablo

    “denying the attacking team a bit of leeway with the feed will further tilt the balance in favour of the non-feeding team… which is obviously not ideal.”
    Arguably the attraction of rugby is that the ball is in contest most of the time, and the defending team can win it back if they do well. In rucks, mauls, lineouts and scrums, they always have a potential for getting the ball.
    IRB (Now the World Rugby buffet) have always been big on this. As such, I suspect they would disagree with the comment.

  • Nick

    Great article. Thanks.

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