Malcolm Marx has been a Springbok for less than two years and played just 14 Tests, but few would argue that he is currently South Africa’s most valuable player.
The former King Edward schoolboy flanker turned into ace hooker is arguably the only Springbok who would be an automatic selection in a World XV.
His worth to the Lions is inestimable; highlighted by the crucial turnovers he made against the Jaguares in the Super Rugby quarter-finals that helped to carry the Johannesburgers into the semi-finals.
Marx leads the Super Rugby stats in forcing turnovers and is arguably the most effective player in the tournament. It could consequently be argued that he is also the new Richie McCaw; always on the edge of exploiting or breaking the law governing rucks.
This is no criticism of Marx. He is peerless in the dark art of stealing the ball and, like McCaw, he is simply best at doing what referees allow him to do.
It is just another instance of the morass of contradictions and abuses of the game’s edicts that World Rugby has got itself into which make rugby difficult to understand for referees, players and spectators alike.
Spurred by SANZAAR finally admitting that constant and often erroneous TMO interventions are spoiling the game refereeing authority, Paul Dobson put it succinctly when he wrote “there are too many bits and pieces of changes, global and local, having differing timetables and in some cases not even written in law.”
The italics are mine because I instantly thought of the many rules that are written into law but which are not applied or ignored.
And the best example of this is Malcolm Marx’s irresistible ability to rip the ball away from an opponent on the ground, like David Pocock does and Heinrich Brüssow used to, even though the ruck law (Law 15 in the recently simplified “bible”) has not changed.
There are a number of stipulations governing this facet of play but the key ones are “a ruck is formed when at least one player from each team are in contact, on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground.
“Once a ruck has formed, no player may handle the ball unless they were able to get their hands on the ball before the ruck formed and stay on their feet.”
Things happen fast but in most cases players who are shoulder-to-shoulder with an opponent are permitted to play the ball with their hands – a clear contravention. This leads to a situation which permits teams to commit fewer players to defending a ruck and clutters up the field. Blow the law correctly and teams will be forced to send in more players over the ball (binding as they do so mind!) to drive over it; thus sucking in defenders and making more space.
Concern over the long-term effects of concussion, coupled now to Sam Warburton’s shock retirement at the age of 29 because of the battering his body has taken, has prompted administrators to ask medicos serving the game to investigate problem areas and recommend methods to make the game safer.
The tackle was identified as a real problem area (both for tackler and the one being tackled) hence a new experiment (yet another tweak) to lower the range of the initial hit from above the shoulder to the armpit or nipple line.
Measures to eliminate lasting or catastrophic injuries are to be applauded but you have to ask why the rucks and mauls are also not been looked at – surely hands in results in heads down?
The “clean-out” which has become predominant in the last few years allows for players to fly into opponents like gannets diving into a shoal of sardines. Often players who are not even near the ball or aware of an approaching opponent are smashed.
It is an ugly and dangerous aspect which increases the risk of injury turning, as it does, the game into a series of small car crashes.
The problem is that while there are loopholes or grey areas, laws which are not applied strictly, the Malcolm Marx’s will find an edge.
They will also do so playing to the letter of the law but at least the referee will be able to respond: “I blow what stands in the book.”