Down Under Blog: It’s a steal

hate Rugby Union. I could write a book about the myriad of reasons why I detest it, but detest it I do.

I’ve probably got a huge working class chip on my shoulder about it, and shudder whenever anyone says “Twickers”, and to be honest I probably just don’t understand the game as well as I do rugby league. As Laurie Daley famously said, “Rugby League is a simple game played by simple men, Rugby Union is a complex game played by wankers.” I can watch a game of yawnion and be totally baffled when the referee blows up for some minor infringement around the ruck, and equally as baffled when a blatant forward pass or knock on that would be immediately pounced upon in our game goes totally unnoticed.

On balance league has got it just about right. It’s (as Laurie maintains) a simple game. Simple to play, simple to understand, and the evolution of our rules has actually reflected the increasing skill levels of our players. Rewarding fitness with reduced interchanges, encouraging open play by reducing points for penalties and drop goals and increasing them for tries. Hell, reducing the number of players on the pitch to 13 was revolutionary. The problem we now have is smoothing out the fine details, and its arisen simply because we have so much else absolutely spot on and the fine details are all we have to concentrate on.

Take Rugby League scrums for example. They are a mess, and have been for years. I think I’ve seen a scrum won against the head and feed about twice in the last ten years, and from memory I saw one other that was fairly won against the head and the ref pulled it up saying the hooker struck for the ball too early. The scrum was invented to be a set piece contest for the ball, these days its merely a device to remove six players from the defensive line for one tackle. Not that any team puts on scrum plays these days – they are seen as “low percentage” by modern coaches and are usually reserved for a last minute play when the game is in the balance. That kick from the base of the scrum in the Grand Final Qualifier in 2006 against Bradford is just about the last time I can remember Hull pulling a scrum base play off successfully. With the speed we have in Ratu, maybe that’s overdue another look?

Another rule that’s causing some consternation over here is the one on one stripping rule. The rule always used to be that a player could only strip the ball in a one on one tackle, and as soon as another defender got involved the ball was a no-go area. Of course, some attacking players (especially late in the tackle count) would deliberately loosen their hold on the ball and allow a defender to take it in a two or more person tackle to milk a penalty. Cue fans and commentators saying “That’s just a loose carry” or “ it’s the defenders job to protect the ball” etc. So, to this season and the new rule came into being that as long as the extra defenders drop off the tackle, a one on one steal can be performed afterwards. That’s on the face of it a minor change in language, but wow has it caused a massive shift in the way a couple of teams play the game.

The main team that have exploited this change have been the Canberra Raiders, and specifically Josh Hodgson. The Raiders have – up until round 22’s games performed 23 one on one strips of the ball this season with Josh personally being responsible for 11 of them.

It’s the way they do it that’s impressive, and it’s not always noticeable on the TV coverage of the games either. Happily I work for a radio station that broadcasts the NRL and has the referees microphones turned WAY up compared to the TV broadcasts, and you can hear the players quite clearly. Basically the Raiders players have a word (and it’s a new one each week so its harder for the opposition to protect against), when a defender has locked the ball up and thinks he has a chance of a steal, he screams this word and the other defenders drop off immediately and reel clear of the tackle, allowing him to reef the ball clear. In the recent Raiders v Warriors game (round 20) the word was “Wash”. Hodgson screamed it twice, and twice got away with a one on one strip.

Obviously, teams are getting wise to this ploy, and the number of offloads in the tackle this year are at an all time low, making for some games being real old fashioned wars of attrition, won with grit and grind rather than eye catching play. I’d be prepared to bet that the rule will be changed back before the start of next season as a result.

Referees have a hard job, and as I said in a blog a few weeks back I’m amazed they get as much correct as they do these days with the speed the game is played at, and the fitness levels you’d need as an official. Running full speed, and having to make a split second massive decision isn’t something I think I could do, even back when I was fit!

Until next time, Up the Cream, Gerremonsard and Come on you ‘Ull.

Rich  – Twitter @pommyrich

This article first appeared in Up the Cream Issue 79. For our online shop, click here

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