The Demise of Contest for the sake of Continuity at the Elite Levels of Rugby Union.

by Roy Harvey

The initial reduction of ‘contest’ began several years ago with the interpretation of the post-tackle situation wherein a tackled player was permitted to reposition body position/ball location directly after a tackle. This replaced the requirement for the tackled player to release the ball and roll away/get to feet immediately – yet the same Law was strictly adhered to for the tackler who was still subject to the original requirements of Law; immediate release and immediate move away or get to feet.

This ‘adjustment’ to the written Law was introduced to promote continuation of play to the detriment of fair contest for the ball directly following a tackle.

Since this ‘interpretation’ of events relating to a tackle other interpretations (rather than applications) of Laws have gradually reduced the concept of ‘fair contest’ and have replaced it by a desire for continuity for the sake of entertainment through rapid continuity. A prime example of which is the interpretation of the Advantage Law, which states that gaining an advantage from an opponent’s error shall be territorial or tactical. However, a major change in interpretation has occurred over time; rather than a team electing to play an immediate advantage over a restart, playing advantage is now applied over the consequence of the restart – the potential outcome of the restart. In other words, the team playing advantage is permitted ‘two bites of the cherry’ by either gaining territorial or tactical advantage, but not to the betterment of the consequence of the restart, and is awarded the restart even though advantage has been gained according to Law.

The following provides further examples of how the game has deviated from Contest & Continuity according to its Charter; sacrificing Contest for the promotion of Continuity of the team in possession.

When a player is on the ground with the ball, whether after a tackle or not, that player has three immediate choices: get up (without the ball after a tackle), pass the ball, or release the ball by putting/pushing it on or on/along the ground. Such release optimizes potential for ‘contest’. In practice this is rarely the case, as tackled players are allowed to (i) reposition and/or (ii) keep a hand on the ball for the sake of stability and, consequently, provide for greater continuity (at the sacrifice of contest for the ball).
At the same time, although the Laws state that nearby players on their feet must remain on their feet, in practice they often do not. A loophole in Law 14.2 allows this as long as it is not intentional. Consequently, arriving players initially standing often end up being supported by other body parts as they set a defensive platform for (again) continuity of possession, at the sacrifice of potential contest.
Within this aspect of play, players not in possession of the ball are expected to adhere to associated Laws so that play may continue. Since this aspect of the game usually occurs many dozens of time during a match the opportunity for possession is skewed to the advantage of the team in possession because of diminished opportunity for contest. It may be argued that the only instance the player in possession of the ball on the ground is sanctioned is when the ball is not made available for continuity by its release to opponents who have fairly won the contest for possession.

Associated with the above is the circumstance where a player is tackled by an opponent who remains standing (According to Law, this player is not a tackler although a tackle has been made). Having made a tackle, this player is unable to take possession of the ball from the tackled player immediately; rather ‘release and retreat’ is demanded before further involvement is permitted. Again, contest is diminished for the sake of continuity by the team in possession.

Compounding this situation, even though the ball is often seen to be out of the ruck following a tackle, associated offside Laws are maintained even when the scrum-half has a hand or foot on the ball well clear of the backmost foot as options for continuity are determined.

Conversely, the scrum-half may be seen reaching well into the ruck (or scrum) to take possession of the ball, despite associated Law forbidding this.

Furthermore, to ensure the team not in possession does not advance at rucks, ‘pillars’ are located well in advance of the back-foot, blatantly flaunting offside Law.

It may be claimed that the prevalent way to gain possession of the ball is when the team in possession makes an error, such as a ‘knock-on’, ‘forward pass’ etc..

When opponents gain possession, it is their turn to continue play with minimal opportunity for contest for the opposition…..

Such opponents initially may be awarded the opportunity to gain possession through the awarding of a scrum for a minor infringement. According to the second paragraph of its Definition,’ front row players can compete for possession’. However, despite having the advantage of the loose-head-prop (and the rest of the front row) being closer to the ball being thrown in, and knowing when the ball is thrown in, the current state of affairs sees no consideration for contest as the ball is almost always thrown in contrary to Law. Most recently, contest is further removed by the position of the scrum-half. Two questions that need address: (a) At the senior levels, is there a competition for possession of the ball, and (b) Why is so much playing time taken up with this aspect of play when resultant possession is a foregone conclusion, and so much time is wasted resetting involved players during the futile efforts to compete without any effort to play the ball?

Once possession is gained, Laws relating to contest are, once more, regularly disregarded for promotion of continuity. It may be claimed that The Game has become compromised for the sake of entertainment.

Most recently, one Experimental Variation has seen the advent of a one-player ruck in order that an offside line may be established at the tackle; again, to promote continuity. Yet at such a ruck the ball may be handled if done so before two opposing players on their feet make contact over the ball. In a roundabout way, an offside-line has been established at the tackle.

In summary, the modern game at the elite level has become a game that has lost its roots regarding contest for the sake of spectacle through optimal continuity. And, if this is how rugby is to evolve, it would be a simple issue to address: Change the Charter and Laws for all participants!

Let us not forget the fact that the game being played at senior levels is not the game being played by the very great majority of players around the world. Their game – and the game match officials are obliged to arbitrate – is played according to The Laws of The Game. Local match officials must be pitied as they attempt to control a game in which players emulate their idols seen on television by playing according to what they observe, only to be sanctioned.

In reality, there are two different games being played; one at the elite level, and the other everywhere else..

Sadly, Rugby Union, as written in The Charter & The Laws of The Game, has lost its direction at the elite level; their game is very similar to, but it is not, Rugby.

Roy Harvey

Lee Smiths Response to Roy Harper’s article

I thought that the article “ The Demise of Contest for the sake of Continuity At the Elite Levels of Rugby Union” was excellent and I would make the following points:

  1. I remember a diagram Tom did some years ago in which the contest for possession was linked to the continuity of play and not the continuity of possession. In it the point was made that if the continuity of play was to be the aim this could be achieved if we let the Laws and refereeing place emphasis on the continuity of possession to the detriment of the contest for possession.
  2. If the entertainment element was to be emphasised by the continuity of possession then the domination of the team in possession of the ball would lead to a sameness about their attack which of course forces the defence to play to a consistent pattern that at least stops the defence from going forward even if the contest for possession is denied them.
  3. Your point re advantage is well taken. In many cases the return to the infringement takes an age.
  4. Perhaps it is because someone with our coaching background is not employed by the IRB while refereeing does have some residents and these employees make sure that the interpretation of the Law has their emphasis which is entertainment and which they see as being solved favouring the attack.
  5. Tell me re the maul is there a trial law that demands that the ball is in the hands of an attacker in contact with the defence? I saw it in a northern hemisphere last week.
  6. Any Law is flawed if it tries to base the implementation on the motivation of the players, in other words, players’ intent.
  7. The refs should be asked what gave them the right to impose “release and retreat”, to interpret offside with such latitude in favour of the team in possession and including using the “pillars” to obstruct the defenders when they move forward.
  8. So much of what the refs are doing is their concept of what the game should look like and their desire to tidy up the contest as this is messy.
  9. Good point re time wasting in many respects.
  10. The ruck definition creates a play the ball as in rugby league. Also remember that modern day players and increasing numbers of refs and coaches have never seen a ruck that could be described as a loose scrum with players in different positions competing for the ball.
    I cannot emphasize enough that The Charter that bases rugby on 5 principles, these are in order of priority and the contest for possession is the first of these, it is #1 priority.

After I went home, other principles were added, things like respect etc, they are in the Law Book. The flaw is that these apply to any civil society and any institution in that society and they facilitate civil human discourse. They are not the exclusive preserve of rugby union and, what is worse, I can quote many situations in which they have been infringed.
If we start with the principles for the performance of the game and use these to get the Laws, officiating, coaching and playing right then we wouldn’t have this mess.

I cannot overlook the weakness of session chairmen at the conference on the game that has led to a few telling the rest, a few with limited knowledge and ability, what to do. It doesn’t matter if there is blood on the floor so long as you are together enough to resolve the issues and from which we depart with common agreement.

We seem to have some momentum – can we keep it going?

Kind regards,
Lee