Are The Rules Around The Ruck Turning Union Into League?
Decreasing competition at the ruck thins the lines between Rugby league and Union.
In my days on a rugby field the ruck was my area of work. Speed and handling in open play were areas that I was barely competent in being a front-row, come back-rower. But the ruck was where I could hold my own. The ability to delve into the dark depths and, against all the odds, come back out with the ball when you team was under the most pressure was a skill of great value to your team which had the potential to instantly turn momentum your way. That potential to compete for a ball at the tackle has always been a special part of rugby union in my eyes and the one of the key differences between it and rugby league.
But policing of the breakdown has always been a contentious issue. Over the years new laws have been introduced that have change its nature for both better and worse. On this occasion, I believe one new law being trialled is definitely for the worse. The change to clarify that a ruck is now commenced when there is one person on their feet over the ball is clearly an effort to help Dylan Hartley and James Haskell understand rugby a little better.
In general, this will make little difference to the game other than to prevent little quarks like the Italy v England game occurring. But the change that worries me greatly surrounds the use of hands in the ruck. The law states “players on their feet may use their hands to pick up the ball as long as this is immediate. As soon as an opposition player arrives, no hands can be used.”
Prior to this the ability of back-row forwards to compete legally for a ball on the ground, while they maintained their body position, was only bested by the ability of the opposition to clear them off the ball. It was a challenge of both physical strength and skill. But now merely the arrival of the opposition is enough now to force the defending back row to retreat. This rule virtually ends the ruck as an area of contest and will likely render great turnover artists such as David Pocock, Sam Warburton and Peter O’Mahoney largely irrelevant.
I understand the desire to speed up the game and simplify one of the most complex areas, but at what cost? The lack of competition at the breakdown may end up having the opposite effect. Defending teams are less likely to commit players to the breakdown if they cannot compete and will, therefore, look to use these players to defend their line. More defenders may mean fewer opportunities for breaking the gain-line and may ultimately slow the game down rather than speed it up.
Continue to change the ruck and we may as well pack it up and call this game rugby league.