13 JANUARY 1979, Page 29

Game laws

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

The retrospect of the All Blacks tour shown on television last Sunday was fascinating and prompts some reflections on Rugby, in particular on the state of the laws (I write about this without, I hope, obstructing Watkins, who previews the International Championship next week). Rugby is a game which has palpably changed for the better as a result of modification of its laws: ask anyone who can remember England v Wales (or Varsity) matches of fifteen and twenty years ago with their endless succession of touch-kick, line-out, scrum, touch-kick . . .

Besides that, the game has been speeded up by the redefinition of forward passes and knocks-on, by the greater freedom of interpretation allowed to referees. This season, though, I begin to wonder if the New Permissiveness has not gone too far. Few matches do not now see unpenalized forward passes (admittedly I have the advantage, as the referee does not, of the television camera). There were plenty of examples in the New Zealand international matches. They were not a bad side — New Zealand football is like Australian cricket: there are no bad sides, but some are better than others. However, they scarcely deserved to win the first-ever grand slam. It may be churlish to point it out, but both tries against England were patently illegal. It is one thing to allow for a 'readjustment' of the ball; another when a man knocks the ball forward from a line-out for someone to pounce upon and score. Other problems which the tour highlighted were the deliberate deception of the referee — Haden's dive at the end of the Cardiff match — and foul play (Haden again, alas, with his right hook on McHarg).

The broader question of violence as seen in the injuries dealt to Ralston and J.P.R. Williams I shall leave to our specialist. All I will say here, maybe not very helpfully, is that it is hard work being a referee; that referees should be on the alert for strokes being pulled; and that they should remember that they possess a high degree of discretionary power over the conduct of the game — as have cricket umpires, of whom more in a moment. For example the obvious answer to the increasingly common `professional foul' is the penalty try: if the referee thinks that there was merely a good chance that a try would have been scored but for a deliberate foul he should not hesitate to award for points (in practice six).

The other contentious problem is the penalty kick. The differential — with a direct kick at goal, or an indirect 'free kick' — has proved only a partial success. For one thing there is still not a clean enough distinction between technical infringements (even when they are committed deliberately for advantage) and foul play. For another, as the cunning Irish in the form of Tony Ward have shown, it is easy enough to turn the free kick into three points, at least at close range: the kicker taps the ball back into his hands and then drops a goal.

As a result there has been a call for a third kick a 'penalty' penalty similar to that in soccer, taken from the centre of the 25-yard line (yes, pace Bill McLaren and all other progressive, metricating pedants). I do not disagree, but would go further. The set kick at goal disfigures Rugby football. It is boring to watch (a subjective view, maybe) and it is unfair (objective, I think) because of the advantage given to a side with one outstanding place-kicker; we have all seen matches won, against the run of play and by the less gifted side, by means of penalties. A self-denying ordinance once obtained. It was not until 1922, I think, that a penalty goal was attempted in the Varsity Match. That has been changed. Now we see penalties taken at goal, sadly in Barbarians matches and fatuously in trial matches such as last Saturday's in Edinburgh.

My remedy, advocated before, is simple: abolish the place kick. There would remain only two kinds of kick: the punt, for whatever purpose, and the drop kick. At the same time there would be two different kicks awarded for an infringement: free and penalty. It doesn't make much difference if a dropped-goal could be directly attempted from a free kick, or whether all attempts at goal would have to be taken a la Ward (I rather favour the latter). The point is that a dropped goal is fairly easy near the posts, scarcely possible at sixty yards — the range from which Irvine can score three points for foot up. The penalty would be as proposed, a kick in the middle of the 'ZS': a drop kick still, but any kicker can score from there. The penalty would be awarded specifically and unfailingly for foul play in the infringing player's own half.

This modest proposal would unquestionably improve Rugby as a spectator sport. Whether it would stamp out foul play is another matter and would be up to referees, who as I say, possess more powers than they often seem to realise. So too do cricket umpires. Much time has been wasted and much ink spilled in recent years over the problem of bouncers: whether they should be bowled at all; if so how often and at whom. The result has been an absurd agreement by which opposing captains decide who is and who is not a 'recognised' batsman; and the wearing by both kinds of undignified helmets. Yet the remedy lay with umpires. Never mind about legal definition of a bumber. There is only one way for an umpire to play it — by ear, using the complete discretion vested in him by Law 46: 'the umpires . . . are the sole judges of fair and unfair play'. But with umpires unwilling to exercise their full authority the game decays. All the same, it has not been a bad series so far.