The World Rugby Law Review group meets today. A recent incident, in the Under 20’s World Cup, laid bare the issues with the current breakdown laws in brutal fashion. Irish flanker, Ciaran Booth, was jackaling for the ball, resisting attempts to roll him off it by his Italian opponents, when an Italian player launched into him from the side. With his feet and studs firmly planted, the only point of give was the knee, leading to a horrendous injury.
This is far from the only, or most severe, of this kind of injury, however. Dan Leavy suffered a similarly horrific “complex knee ligament injury” when competing in the Champions Cup quarter final for Leinster against Ulster, after Leavy’s planted left leg buckled under pressure from two clearing Ulster players. The injury flashed upon on television replays once, only for it to be deemed too gruesome to be seen again.
However, this kind of incident will not be unfamiliar to players up and down the country. Many will recognise the crouched position adopted by flankers, and the kamikaze style clear out by those desperate to stop opposition opensides from poaching their ball. Fundamentally however, current notions of who is “on their feet” and who is not, seem completely divorced from basic biology and logic. Whilst the player competing for the ball must adopt a wide, static stance in order to “support their body weight,” dropping their shoulders low beneath their knees, those clearing out seem to have license to fly in uncontrollably from all angles, without regard for their opponent’s welfare so long as they avoid the head.
As Ben Ryan, who coached Fiji to 2016 Olympic Sevens glory, has noticed, players are, “deliberately collapsing rucks or coming off their feet.” Amongst those who have suffered from a similar type of injury, where the joints have been unable to take the twisting and straining upon impact at the breakdown, were legends Jean de Villiers and Paul O’Connell.
Ultimately, those attempting to steal the ball place themselves in a hugely dangerous position, whilst those attempting to get them off it apply the force to do serious damage. But this is not players fault, it is enabled by the current interpretation of the laws and refereeing trends.
As such, Ryan acknowledges that players are simply playing the game the way it is refereed, “the best way to be able to get someone, who is effectively sealing off the ball defensively – and there is no room underneath – is either turning, or judo-rolling, him or just blunt-force trauma and smash him off it, neither of which are legal.” The result, in his eyes, is a competition over the ball that is “just blunt-force power and trauma.”
Older generations have been complaining about the current breakdown laws for years, it is time that World Rugby began to take note and change things. The difficulty, however, is how to do so without reducing fair competition, which would effectively turn union into an unlimited tackle version of league. However, as a governing body, they have a responsibility to players and fans to change things, surely reducing the amount of hands in the breakdown, which would raise body heights and quicken ball, is the way forward.
Written by Joe Ronan