A couple of weeks ago, I chanced upon the backend of a rugby television programme out of the Antipodes in which the panel was excitably discussing the proposed “50-22” law.
Clearly the brainchild of an unfettered hipster running amok in the bowels of World Rugby’s headquarters, the law states that, should a team kick the ball from within its own half (the “50”), and it lands in the opponent’s 22-metre area and into touch, the kicking team is rewarded with an attacking lineout.
After rewinding the segment enough times to ensure I’d heard correctly – almost falling off my treadmill, in the process – I immediately dived into the internet to satisfy my incredulity.
Another unnecessary way to further ‘Disneyfy’ rugby union, 50-22 has divided opinions, to no one’s shock and horror. Inspired directly by the “40-22” rule in rugby league, this proposed law’s backers believe that it could lead to the nature of the game being less combative.
Specifically, that defending teams will drop more players back in fear of an ace kicking game plan, thus reducing the number of players in an approaching defensive line, where a lot of injuries occur in the age of monster backs moving at frightening speeds.
Debatably, this might see teams select smaller, more skillful backline players to exploit the increased real estate in front of them, as if a fool would drop Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane or Israel Folau, who clearly lack the skill and pace to make merry in this favourable scenario…
Say what you like, but a collision sport requiring you to physically dominate your opponent to win will always have a high injury rate. Human beings are bigger than they have ever been, and the “smaller” players referred to are still larger and more powerful than those before the advent of professional rugby.
Even if the proposed law comes into effect, the big boys are going to get first preference by the natural law of selection.
However, my biggest gripe lies on the scoreboard. In an age when sports are struggling to draw a crowd and jostling for a fickle audience on the telly, more points, runs and goals are being scored as authorities tweak the laws in favour of attacking teams to drive interest.
As a purist, this law change will feel like defence being punished more than the rewarding of attacking endeavour.
It’s hard enough trying to keep the All Blacks pinned in their own half knowing how lethal their breakout play is, but now the best kicking nation on earth can punish you with a clinical kicking game, and the resultant first phase play from within your own 22 is enough to cause one nightmares! Now, that last part was me being dramatic, but my point does still stand: we need to reward good defence, too.
If a team can’t secure possession in its own half because of excellent turnover play by the defence, it shouldn’t be the latter’s problem. The whole idea of clearing the ball under pressure is to relieve it, and a lucky bounce into the touch area of the final quarter of the pitch cannot be rewarded with an attacking lineout! Hell no!
And besides, a perfectly-placed kick into the five metre area from open play always makes for absorbing viewing during the ensuing defensive lineout when five crucial points can be conceded from a wayward throw.
Also, this law could result in a sword that cuts both ways. I suspect attack-heavy outfits may think twice about the ball-in-hand approach from within their own half, fearing what might happen if, for example the outside backs are on an adventure deep into enemy territory, leaving their own 22m unattended.
“There could be more ball in play, and fewer tackles, but less attractive play,” is what Newcastle Falcons and England utility back Toby Flood had to say about this potential speed trap.
At the rate that things are going, World Rugby might as well remove two players from each team. But wait, didn’t the great JPR Williams once say the same thing decades ago? And wasn’t this a very unpopular addition to the convoluted powerplays in Varsity Cup rugby?
That’s another story!
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