Malcolm Marx: hero or outlaw?

Dan Retief

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.”

- Dan Retief

Let's chat

  • Nick

    In the northern hemisphere adjustments have been made to the ruck for a season now. The ruck law as a result, is not the same anymore in terms of when the ruck has started and following that, when hands are not allowed.

    Proposed changes to the tackle law are long overdue. A tackle to the neck or head should not be part of the game.

  • Barry Smith

    Dan, could you not perhaps have held back on this untill after the Waratahs game on Saturday. We have to endure Glenda Jackson this weekend who is pedantic at the breakdown and needs no further encouragement from local scribes!
    I dare say his whistle will nullify Malcolm’s impact a fair bit!

  • Greg Shark

    ever so correct Dan, the ruck ball is very poorly blown and in some cases, as palpably obvious in last weeks games, you see one team penalised and the opposing team not for the identical infringement. Not to mention the ‘swimmers’ that are obstruct mauls and interfere with the drive…..the one reason why NZ refs should not handle any games where nz teams are playing!

    • SweetAz

      NAILED IT GREG! The Crusaders are masters at this, and even though I’m not a Sharks supporter I actually felt sorry for them as the Crusaders were causing their usual ruck mayhem with bodies flying in from all angles doing all kinds of illegal things at every ruck,—-AND GETTING AWAY with it. I know its kind of tiresome to blame the refs, but the kiwi refs are amongst the worst in the world,-they think letting the “game flow” is more important than policing the laws and kiwi teams have the ethos of “play to the ref”. Put those 2 attitudes together and visiting teams are substantially disadvantaged and why nobody can seem to win in NZ. It all looks great and very skillful and its most entertaining for the crowd,–BUT if you carefully examine the plays you could probably rule out 50% of their try’s for offside, forward passes (lineballs lol), hands in rucks, obstruction, removing defenders from running lines etc. When AR’s are also kiwi you will find the kiwi team seldom gets back fully on side between phases (Crusaders, especially Crotty and Goodhue) and line kicks for the visiting team just never seem to go as far as the home teams. In short they are the biggest cheats in world rugby.

  • Herman Schroder?

    Bring back some of the ‘old’ rules and it will simplify the rules.

    1. A forward pass is a forward pass if a player receives the ball ahead of the passer irrespective of the supposed ‘momentum’ of the pass so beloved of the Australasian teams. The so called ‘flat pass’ is the term used if a ball is marginally forward and officials who don’t call a forward pass are alleviated of their responsibility. To help the officials, paint more more ‘grid lines’ across the field. Players will soon learn to pass ‘backwards’.

    2. The tackled player must release the ball immediately after leaving his feet. These days players roll all over the place while holding the ball until they feel a friendly hand on them. A ball lying loose will then be easier pickings for the arriving players of both sides and less rucks will be formed thus quickening up the game.

    3 Jumping for an aerial ball must be made illegal. Far simpler than all the iffy rules surrounding the ‘tackled in the air’ problem and the inability of officials to be consistent when adjudicating these misdemeanours.

    4 At rucks and mauls make the ball the offside line so any hit on peripheral defenders would be illegal thus eliminating the dangerous late clear out around these phases. It will also eliminate that ‘rolling maul’ problem and force teams to clear the lineout promptly thus again opening up the game. Lineouts must consist of all eight forwards thus avoiding blanket defences which in turn will open up the field for the backs.

    5 Then my favourite change. Allow rucking or ‘boots in’ of players on the ground on the wrong side of a loose scrum. Dangerous you say ? Yeah but you will see how quickly players adapt believe me.

    6. Far quicker penalties and conversions should be taken. And while on the subject of kicking let’s bring back the bucket of sand as your tee and then we”ll see how good these modern day kickers really are, lol.

    7. Far quicker set up of scrums and lineouts. These ‘committee meetings’ 30 metres away from the lineout forming is rubbish especially when a team is buying time. The problem is they have these meetings and actually wait for the officials to call them in. The ref must take control. Changing the line out to the defending team if the attacking team is taking too long will soon remedy that.

    8. Red and yellow card offences. If a player has been deemed to have transgressed enough to ‘qualify’ for a red card then the player should leave the field immediately without TMO intervention. Call it a white card if you will. The player is then immediately replaced on the field and the game continues without disruption. A panel of ‘judges’ then has ten minutes to look at all the available material and must come up with a ruling applicable to the offence. If he is cleared of any wrongdoing he can return to the field. If not a very harsh penalty should be imposed. This is to avoid some players ‘taking one for the team’. In this way there is no time wasted with endless replays and teams remain at full strength. Simple.

    Back to basics is my solution to the current stop start affair called modern rugby. Simplify the rules for players, officials and the fans will come back. NZ rugby for all it’s on field success is facing a ‘bums on seats’ crisis over there. Auss and ourselves, with some exceptions, are not much better. The watchdogs of our game World Rugby’ and Sanzar in the Southern Hemisphere really need to get their acts together and fast. Less is more should be their mantra so please save this wonderful game of ours. Cheers.

    • Brom Ponie

      #2 That’s already the rule, unless you’re suggesting they aren’t allowed to place the ball and such – then I’d have to disagree entirely.
      #3 Not being allowed to jump is absurd.
      But our current situation really needs to be done away with… One has to allow for context & observe each scenario. I’d say players are allowed to contest, and jumping is *optional* for both (it’s unfair to say one must jump if another does & to blame one if he stood still & the other jumped. Of course you can intend to catch a ball while standing!). It should only be a “tackle in the air” if the other player actually *tackled* the airborn player and clearly didn’t have any intention of catching the ball.
      #4 … I like mauls – it’s a part of rugby, the same as rucks & lineouts. It adds variety, and open-play should not always be the only option.
      #8 Disagree. Rugby is a team sport, and the players’ actions all have bearing/influence on the team. Otherwise, things can get tricky, and one might argue why the whole team should be punished if only this one person is offside? blah blah
      (However, our currect situation is a mess, and these card-giving sprees becoming a norm is very frustrating & problematic. Referees must learn to have some *reserve* before dealing out cards…)

    • Greg Shark

      mmmm Herman…. I see some merit!
      2. tackle player to release is already the rule, however, pay attention to how many still keep a hand on the ball. Now if “downward pressure” when scoring a try is defined as a pinkie finger grazing the side of the ball, then the tackle player has already committed an infringement. Rule is seldom policed.
      3. to jump, not to jump – something must be done to eradicate the slew of harsh cards and then the subtle no chance aerial attack needs better adjudication. Might as well cut out the jump?
      5. oh YES! bring back RUCKING!!
      6. Penalties / conversions? what about the quick tap penalty/free kick that is seldom on the mark and ref too bone idle to bring it back and the quick tap where the ball never leaves the hand?
      7. cut out committee meeting – 30 seconds to line up and 15 seconds to throw the ball….let the crowd count!
      8. Ref/linesman indicate possible foul play, let the player continue until the card is off field adjudicated, linesman to mark the approx. spot. Panel refers to ref, player sent off or play carries on.

      Back to basics and bring back knuckle sandwiches…..

      • John Comyn

        and for the love of Mike pleeeeeease stop this thing where whenever a try is scored the ref is entitled to go back 3,4,5,6 phases to check for something as arb as a forward pass. win some lose some

  • Nick

    Suggestion no 4. If that is where you suggest the offside line should be it will be virtually impossible to clear and move the ball. As it is, a current problem is defensive lines not keeping to the last line of feet at the ruck.

    5,8 and 3 are hilarious. Nice one Herman, you’re a funny guy. Will be good to see youth players stamping the crap out of each other. Parents will love it.

  • Nick

    I also think too many forward passes are illegally waved on.

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