The 2016 Law Amendments Trial


World Rugby has announced a number of amendments to the current Laws which are to be tested and trialed in 2016 and 2017. These changes and the timing of the changes are in line with a system that has become enshrined in World Rugby procedures – Change the laws after every World Cup, and then declare a moratorium on changes until after the next World Cup.


In theory this makes sense, players, coaches and referees have four years to get used to the changed laws and adjust their game accordingly.


In practice this system is nonsense. Once the law changes have been considered by the WR brains trust, they are quietly announced, and then slowly filtered into the game through an extended period of trials and tests, often lasting two or three years. In the meantime, despite the so-called moratorium on any further changes to the Laws, we are subjected to constant tinkering with the existing Laws through formal WR Law Clarifications and then we have the referees of the world giving us their interpretations of those same Laws or, most frequently, making up their own versions of the Laws or simply deciding to ignore the Laws completely. The application of Law 20.6 requiring the scrumhalf to put the ball in straight is perhaps the most obvious example of referees ignoring the Laws.


Before I start looking at the new law proposals I must make my view clear: There is no doubt that rugby needs to be simplified, the current law book is a bugger’s muddle of contradictions massively enhanced by those puzzling refereeing decisions that are not found anywhere in that law book.


Rugby does not need more complication with intricate laws that are open to interpretation.


Any changes that are made to the laws that will simplify the understanding of our game are most welcome; any changes that improve the flow and excitement of our game are even more welcome.


(I must also add that I have not been able to trace the World Rugby “announcement” of the trial laws and changes, their website remains silent on this subject and their media releases do not make any mention of trial laws. My comments are thus based on information gleaned from various on-line media and publications. Until we have the formal official announcement some of the proposed announcements may very well be speculation by media hacks that need to file a story before the festive season takes it’s toll on their thought processes.)


We are told that testing will take place in New Zealand’s NPC competition, Australia’s National Rugby Championships, South Africa’s Vodacom Cup, England’s Army Premiership, France’s Academy League, and Wales’s Premiership and their College Championships. I hear that South Africa’s Varsity Cup will also be a test bed, but cannot find confirmation of this anywhere.


In addition four of World Rugby’s competitions will also serve as trials for the various envisaged changes – The Nations Cup, The Pacific Nations Cup, The Tbilisi Cup and The Under-20 Trophy.


The World Rugby competitions will try out all the possible changes.


Other changes will be selectively tested by various nations and competitions.


For example, New Zealand’s NPC will only trial the following changes:


  • The introduction of Two referees


  • The new points system.


  • Changes to Law 15: Tackler must get to feet, then can play the ball only from his side of the mid-point of the breakdown. Tackler assist or first arriving player may play the ball as long they join from an onside position


  • Changes to Law 16:


  • Breakdown is formed when an attacking player of feet is over the ball on the ground, from this time no players may play the ball with their hands.
  • An off side line is created 1 meter behind the hindmost foot.
  • Arriving players may join from onside as long as they join their side of the midpoint (no gate).
  • No players may have their hands on the ground, or players already on the ground. A player in the half back position may play the ball


They will not be trialing the changes to the scrum set, wheeling, kick-offs, ball in touch, and uncontested scrums. It remains to be seen who will test and try what, exactly where, when and how.


Let’s take a look at the proposed changes:




Changes are proposed to Law 9. A. 1 – Points Values.


The changes are suggested as encouragement for teams to attempt to score more tries and place less reliance on penalty goals and drop goals. It is suggested that:


  • A try to be worth 6 points
  • A conversion, penalty and drop goal to be worth 2 points
  • A penalty try to be worth 8 points, with no conversion necessaryComment:I do not like all of this! By all means increase the value of a try by one or even two points. Anything that encourages scoring tries is worth a go, especially if it sounds the death knell for JakeBall or Heyneke Meyer’s “Traditional South African Rugby” and all variations of that game plan that attempt to build a win out of penalties. However there is certainly a downside to the other proposed changes. A two-point penalty will doubtless encourage teams to commit penalisable transgressions in the “red zone” rather than concede a possible try knowing that a two point penalty will not hurt nearly as much as a 5(6) point try or 7(8) point goal. Yes, there are other sanctions for continual transgressions, and professional fouls, both may result in a yellow card, but a simple off-side or other “innocuous” transgression that results in a 2 pointer, immediate relief of pressure and an “exit plan” to get out of the danger zone of your own 22m area, and you can restart from the center-spot and play in the other half of the field! It can be a team strategy to relieve pressure even when the opponents are not threatening the line directly.Decreasing the value of a drop goal is a meddlesome step too far. The ability to score a drop goal is a special skill requiring practice as well as well executed team strategy and tactical play to set it up. Reducing the value of the drop goal is counter-productive as it denigrates from one of the essential skill-sets that make a complete rugby player. Lest we forget that an attempted drop goal carries a certain element of risk too – just in the last Super Rugby season we saw two tries scored from attempted drops that were charged down.As for an automatic 8-point penalty try, I fear this is also a bridge too far. I understand that the thinking is to get on with the game without the formality of the conversion of a penalty try under the posts, but that is still one of the risk elements taken out of the game. We have all seen kickers miss the “sitter”……..Penalty tries are often awarded in extremely controversial circumstances by referees who have become frustrated by one or another on-field issue. Increasing the point value of the penalty try increases the referee’s ability to have an influence on the outcome of a game at a time where most referees are already under the spotlight for incompetence or downright biased officiating. Rohan Hoffman comes to mind as a serial offender. Just last weekend I watched one of the world’s Top 12 referees, Wayne Barnes, award a penalty try from a scrum that collapsed on the 5m line. There was certainly no evidence that a try would probably have been scored if the scrum had not collapsed, yet it was instantly a 7-pointer….Two on-field refereesChanges are suggested to Law 6, Match Officials.There will be two referees policing the game at all times. The second on-field referee will be used primarily to police the offside line.Comment:I like it. It works. It needs refinement; the experiment with two referees in the South African Varsity Cup competition received some mixed reviews but the general consensus was that the system had much potential. It will take time for the referees to adjust to the teamwork required and certain definitions of responsibilities are needed, such as who is in control of the scrum and whose call takes precedence. This system certainly negates the effect of a single incompetent or biased individual ruining a game.Now for an important section: Changes to Law 20. The Scrum.Scrum FormationThe ritual of Crouch, Bind, Set is dead. It will be replaced by just two calls: Crouch, and Bind.The ‘crouch’ will now see both front rows lean in and go shoulder to shoulder with their opponents. On ‘bind’, the props position their arms in the correct position as per the current laws, with the players behind them also tightening their binds.The ball will then be fed into the scrum “without delay,” with the team putting the ball in deciding when the ball will be put into the tunnel. Comment:Hip Hip Hooray!! If I interpret this correctly we have returned to the old system of contact first and then the bind. Watch the old videos of the 1995 World Cup where this method of “building” a scrum was in use – no collapsed scrums!!!!! This change has might just put to bed one of my personal issues with the laws of the game and the way referees interpret Law 20.                                               This means that the tackler no longer has 360-degree rights to the ball, and he cannot make a tackle and then linger in an obstructive position beyond the tackled player effectively blocking or at least interfering with incoming support. Instead he and other arriving players will be able to enter the breakdown from any angle – as long as they have come from an onside position.Comment:Yes! Sanity returns to the breakdown and referee interpretations of the “gate” are no longer part of the game. A reversion to the line through the ball as the offside mark in the ruck situation is brilliant. Far too many penalties have been awarded for arriving players who come from meters behind the ball being penalized for a dubious “side entry” – This is a reversion to the old off-side line, and I like it!The bonus is to take this change and read it together with the proposed change to the offside line. The player is either in the ruck (breakdown) or out – he cannot hang around the breakdown point in an obstructing position.       AdvantageLaw 8 is to be changed so that when a team infringes more than once while advantage is being played, the non-offending team will be allowed a choice of which penalty they would prefer. (Penalty here or over there?)Comment:I have no problem with this proposed change. It makes sense.      The Five-metre Drop OutLaw 22 – In Goal is to be radically changed.If the attacking team infringes in such a way that a five-metre scrum could be awarded, the defending team would have the option of the scrum or a drop-out from the five-metre line.The drop out can be taken anywhere along the five-metre line and will be treated exactly as a 22 drop out is, so all the kicking players’ teammates must be behind him.Comment:This is a fairly significant proposal as it changes one of the original fundamental rules of the game. It does mean that a team with a weaker scrum will almost always opt for the kick rather than a possibly disastrous scrum. This is very likely to reduce the number of scrums.I am not sure whether there is much benefit to be gained from the drop-out as most teams will surely kick for touch, and it would require a monster kick to gain any real relief. Most touch kicks gain, on average, no more than 25 meters and a kick from the 5 meter line will probably result in an attacking lineout for the opposition on or around the 22m mark. (Not that an “attacking” lineout option was worth anything to England during the last World Cup………..)TouchThe proposed changes to Law 19 certainly make sense and add clarity.
  • Makes sense, and no more very strange interpretations by Rohan Hoffman.
  • Comment:
  • If time has expired and the referee awards a mark, free-kick or penalty, play continues. And if a team kicks a penalty into touch, the referee allows the throw-in to be taken and play goes on until the ball next becomes dead.
  • Changes to Law 5 – Time also make sense.
  • Final whistle
  • I do have a slight twinge of nostalgia for the loss of the surprise lineout option on the halfway line – I used to use it as a tactic in my coaching days and can recall at least three tries scored by wingers and fullbacks taking the lineout option while the forwards pretended to be trooping to the centre spot for the usually expected scrum. Two of my club players took the tactic up to our Currie Cup provincial team and promptly scored a try against Natal back in the mid-1980s.
  • I guess the change might encourage a quick tap and run or some set-piece style free kick drive and set-up. I have no issue with this as it certainly will speed up the game by removing yet another time wasting scrum.
  • Comment:
  • A kick-off that falls short of the ten-meter line, or that carries over the touch line, or over the deadball line will result in a free kick at the center spot and not a scrum. The scrum will not be an option at all, neither will the option of a lineout on the middle line be seen again.
  • Law 13 – Kick-offs will allow the Sevens variation to find it’s way into the big game.
  • Botched Kick-offs and Restarts
  • In addition, the privilege that the tackler had of entering from “any direction” is gone. He, too, must now play from an onside position.
  • Side entry is also done away with, but a player entering the breakdown must start from an onside position.
  • Players no longer need to enter the breakdown from behind the “gate” formed by the bodies of the tackled player and the tackler.
  • Removal of “The Gate”
  • Whilst the change is welcome, the reality is that the extra one meter might not be enough to create the running space we would like to see in our game. Certainly the scrum-half is given an extra meter of space to move the ball and launch his box kicks, but…………..
  • What the extra one meter does do is effectively take away the constant niggles of incoming players taking out fringing opponents off-the-ball on and behind the sides of the ruck (breakdown) under the guise of “clearing out” and then standing in obstructing positions holding on to opponents next to or in front of the ball. The one meter offside line places such transgressors in a penalisable position.
  • We want players to run off second phase ball, and an extra one meter of space is so much better than the current situation where defenders can line up on the “last man’s feet” and smother every ball the moment it is picked up by the half-back. It leads to constant pick & drive tactics and static rugby, despite some of our extremely knowledgeable TV commentators waxing lyrical about the “disciplines”, “protecting the ball” and “going through the phases” – it is simply the single most boring aspect of the modern game and I would rather watch paint dry.
  • One meter is surely not enough, it should be 5 meters in line with Rugby League.
  • Hooray, but without too much celebration.
  • Comment:
  • The off-side line to be moved one meter back from the breakdown.
  • Off-side Line
  • I need some more information on exactly what the lawmakers envisage with this one. Sounds a bit too complicated at the moment.
  • The proposed change needs some clarification. Is the ball-carrier able to go to ground, release the ball, and then take position over it to create the “breakdown” as the “just one attacking player” waiting for his support players to join him? If he does form up over the ball is he not allowed to pick it up anymore? Or must he be tackled by an opponent in order to create a breakdown?
  • Why the word “ruck” is to be changed remains a mystery.
  • Comment:
  • The word ‘ruck’ to be replaced by ‘breakdown’, which will be formed when just one attacking player is over the ball while on the ground. Once a breakdown is formed, no player will be able to play the ball with their hands.
  • From Ruck to Breakdown
  • The next set of proposed changes impact on two important Laws that are closely interlinked. Changes to Laws 15 & 16 impact on both the Tackle and the Ruck.
  • I do like the idea that the maul must move, a static maul is as boring as constantly resetting scrums. 5 seconds sounds about right.
  • I am not sure that this is a wholly good idea, the maul is already a measure of condoned obstruction and needs a complete rethink. A rolling maul with players taking the ball forward, then left or right at will is a superb piece of rugby tactical play, but the wedge lineout drive should surely be illegal in terms of the laws of obstruction? It is tantamount to the “flying wedge” and that little gambit is specifically and clearly outlawed in Law 10.4 (p).
  • Comment:
  • A maul must move forward within 5 seconds after it was first set up. If that doesn’t happen and the referee can see the ball, he tells the attacking team to use it. If they don’t do so within a “reasonable time” a scrum is ordered.
  • The change suggested is as follows:
  • Law 17, the Maul remains a bone of some contention amongst many rugby aficionados. The changes suggested now are rather minor in importance and do not address some of the more serious issues.
  • Mauls
  • If you cannot front up physically you need to suffer the consequences – we are still playing rugby here!
  • I rather like this one! Too many teams have used the seven man uncontested scrum tactic to negate the dominance of the opposing pack of forwards by forcing the ref to call uncontested scrums, and then brought on a couple of extra loose forwards as “props” to give them more pace and extra muscle out wide.
  • Comment:
  • If a team cannot provide a suitably trained substitute in the front row after injury or sending off, the match will proceed with uncontested scrums but…. There will always be eight players in each pack. This will force a team to fill an empty slot in the pack with one of their backs, creating a gap in the backline somewhere.
  • Front Row Subs
  • The suggested change to Law 3 – the Number of Players, also impacts on the scrum.
  • The changes do nothing other than remove the constant penalties when a scrum wheels.
  • A dominant pack should be rewarded for hard work with the ability to slow or spoil the opposition ball with a wheel.
  • A full wheel with the ball at the lock’s feet, breaking away from the front row to dribble the ball forward a couple of meters before releasing it to the loosies or halfback was another tactic that died when the law-makers attempted to neuter the scrum.
  • Nope, I still do not really like it! The scrum wheel was a superb tactic used by many a well-drilled pack of forwards in days past. A quarter-wheel or a half-wheel on attack or defence to take out the opposition loose-forwards and launch attacks or, alternatively, protect the ball off the base was a thing of beauty.
  • But…..
  • Better perhaps than the constant stream of penalties the moment the scrum starts to wheel. Muddled interpretations by referees over “competing, pulling, pushing, swinging” and all other sorts of imagined transgressions not actually mentioned in the laws might just be history.
  • Comment:
  • If a scrum is deemed to have been wheeled, the referee sets a new scrum at the place where the previous scrum ended, with team who previously fed the scrum doing so again.
  • Scrum wheel
  • My concern about the policing of the scrumhalf’s put-in remains. “Straight” is not a word understood by most referees. (With apologies to Nigel Owens)
  • Again, a reversion to the way scrums used to be before the lawmakers interfered. I like it in principle. This removes the referee from the decision about when the ball may be put into the scrum and reverts to the old system where the team with the “put-in” has the advantage of timing their strike and shove for maximum benefit.
  • Comment
  • The hooker will be allowed to give his scrum-half a signal that he is ready for the feed.
  • The scrum-half feeding the scrum must put the ball in straight, but can align his outside shoulder with the middle line of the scrum, leaving him a shoulder width towards his own side.
  • Scrum Feed
  •  A player juggling to catch a ball, is out when he makes contact with touch. A player juggling the ball is deemed to be in possession of the ball.


  • If a player in the field of play, jumps and knocks the ball back into play, play goes on as long as he does so before he lands, regardless of where he lands and where the ball was when he played it back into play.


  • If a ball-carrier crosses the touchline and plays the ball back into the field before neither he nor the ball has landed in touch.


  • If a player already in touch, catches the ball before it reaches the plane of touch, it is the other side’s throw-in. He is deemed to have taken the ball into touch.




I have no problem or issue with these changes. They make complete sense and bring clarity to on-field situations.





No doubt some of the proposed changes are very necessary. I welcome the changes to the scrum formation, the rucks, and others, as I have mentioned in my comments.


Some of the changes simply do not go far enough, whilst other problem areas have been completely ignored.


The Maul, especially the driving wedge off a lineout, remains a problem. This is legalized obstruction and gives the opponent no fair and equitable way of countering the drive. Any attempt to get near the ball carrier is penalized, and any attempt to stop the drive other than a pure counter shove is instantly penalized, often with an accompanying yellow card. This aspect of our game remains a complete mess.


The varying referee interpretations and inventions of aspects of Law 20 (The Scrum) have not been addressed. Penalties against front rowers

who have been physically popped out of the scrum remain a serious bone of contention – the wrong player is being penalized if the Law is applied as it is written. The problems with binding and slipping binds have not been addressed. The wheel has not been properly addressed.


Issues such as constant pick & go drives off the ruck (breakdown) will continue as the one-meter off-side line is not far enough. This is an element of the game that contributes to spectator boredom and static play. It needs more work!


Issues such as varying interpretations of Law 12 and what constitutes a “throw forward” have not been addressed.


Most importantly issues where the different laws contradict each other have been ignored. Law 10’s interpretation of dangerous play in the scrum (Law 10.4.k) remains at odds with Law 20 regarding lifting the opponent in the scrum. Law 20 determines no sanction for such an incident, simply a reset scrum, while Law 10 demands that the lifter be penalized for “foul play” – Adding to that lack of consistency we have referees who introduce their own version of the laws and penalize the guy who got lifted rather than the guy who is doing the lifting!!


The Laws Of The Game Rugby Union remain a serious problem. They are too intricate, too obscure, too muddled, too contradictory, subject to too many interpretations. Finally, there are TOO MANY laws.


Looking at the trial period for the proposed changes we have discussed above; all those involved with the tests and trials will report to three World Rugby working committees (Law Review Group, the Scrum Steering Group and the Multi-Disciplinary Injury Prevention Group).


After doubtlessly lengthy discussion by these three august bodies, their recommendations will be sent to Rugby Committee. After the Rugby Committee has munched through the reports and a couple of expensive business lunches at 5-Star restaurants and hotels, their conclusions will be sent to the Executive of World Rugby. The Executive will then consider the proposed changes, perhaps call for further trials, or more information. They might actually go ahead and accept the changes!


Regrettably, any of the changes that make it into formal Law will only be approved around November 2018. Just months before the next Rugby World Cup. That is simply too slow.


And that last bit of bureaucratic bungling and time wasting is precisely what is really wrong with our game.