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Offside Laws offside?

Offside Laws offside?

Never one to shy away from a debate, your correspondent Adrian O’Farrell makes some suggestions on law changes in the light of what he calls a “dour and defensive” World Cup.

Any assessment of RWC 2007 by a person from this island has to be seen in the same light as the show attended by Mrs. Abraham Lincoln on the fateful evening of her husband’s assassination.

Try as I might, I cannot sign onto the type of Stephen Jones ‘this was the best world cup in history’ hyperbole that is abroad in some quarters. Overall, it rivals 1999 as the most dour and defensive in the history of the World Cup.

Yes, France v New Zealand was a classic.
Yes, Wales v Fiji was another one, albeit of a different sort.
Yes, England did magnificently well.
Yes, there were a few other decent games thrown in. 
Yes, the minnows scrapped manfully.
Yes, Argentina’s spirit was wonderful.

But …

There was an awful lot of dross. Even in the France v New Zealand game. The game has undeniably become less good to watch. This isn’t to decry or undervalue South Africa’s, or indeed England’s, achievements. The game should never hand out scores based on artistic merit. However, if I have to watch one more bloody garryowen this season …! And it’s only October.

Part of the frustration was that those players fielding the kick tended overwhelmingly to return the favour along with the ball, rather than run the ball back. This can be partially explained by the heightened pressure players feel during the world’s biggest tournament.

However, it was also in part due to the laws of the game and how those were refereed. The IRB frequently look at the laws of the game in light of the world’s biggest tournament. In my view they should take a serious look at the offside law in relation to general play.

When the bloke at the back hoofs the ball up in the air, his team-mates ahead of the ball must wait to be put onside. This can happen in one of two ways – by one of his own onside team-mates running in front of him, or by the action of his opponents.

At the risk of teaching granny to suck eggs, I’m going to elaborate on these a little because in my view these are unduly harsh on the ball-fielding team and tend to favour the defending team, leading in the case of the World Cup just played to a surfeit of ball being hoofed back in the general direction whence it came.

An offside player is put onside by his opponents (i.e. the fielding team in the case of a garryowen) when the opponent a) runs 5 metres with the ball b) kicks or passes the ball or c) intentionally touches the ball but does not catch it (this last one is intended to cover an intentional block – which puts otherwise offside players onside).

The other element to this is the 10m law whereby offside players must immediately ensure they are behind an imaginary 10m line across the pitch in front of the opponent waiting to play the ball or from where the ball lands or may land. We’ll come back to this bit.

In other words, there is no point in the chasing team actually chasing the ball in order to put their players onside. Why? Because the opponent will inevitably do it for them anyway by either passing the ball, kicking it or running 5 metres.  This actually happened quite a bit. I can recall Juan Hernandez, as last man back, kicking long and not bothering to run forward to put his team-mates onside because, presumably, he knew that as soon as the opposition got it they would put his mates onside in plenty of time for their defence to be organised sufficiently. Even allowing that those team-mates did not move forward towards the ball.

The other thing is that there is a fair degree of latitude given to the referee in the implementation of the laws. Law 11.1(a) states ‘A player who is in an offside position is liable to penalty only if the player does one of three thrings: Interferes with play or, Moves forward, towards the ball or Fails to comply with the 10m law’. So far, so good. However, it goes on to state that ‘A player who is in an offside position is not automatically penalised’. Eh? So it’s up to the referee’s discretion. This might explain why I cannot recall a single instance in this world cup dominated by kicking where the referee spotted a man ahead of the kicker ambling forward as opposed to standing stock still. Answers on a postcard please, if you can recall it happening.

So what’s actually happening is that the kicker is hoofing it long and his team-mates are ambling up to the 10m line but not ‘interfering with play’ (i.e. not playing the ball or obstructing an opponent), regardless of whether or not they have been put onside by a team-mate or not. This they do in the fairly safe knowledge they won’t get pinged for it and their opponent is about to put them onside anyway through running 5m, passing or kicking the ball.

What’s the solution? There are in fact a number of options that would resolve this in favour of the guy that wants to run with the ball. How about making the 10 metre law a 20 metre law, for one? Or an opponent only puts a player onside when they run 10 metres (or 15 metres), not 5 metres? Or they are allowed to make a pass without putting their opponents onside (this would offer greater reward to those back threes that get back in support of the catcher)? Or, more radically, how about making those team-mates of the kicker actually move towards an onside position until they are put onside (as opposed to standing there)? Or, maybe all we need is that referees penalise teams that drift forward towards the 10m line whilst offside.

Of course, the really radical approach is to acknowledge that the players are unrecognisably fitter than when the laws of the game were framed, to the point that the original equation between players and space has changed irrevocably. Thirteen a side, anyone?