If the Covid-19 pandemic really is rugby union’s opportunity to reset, referees in Super Rugby Aotearoa have made a robust start towards remoulding the game.
A total of 60 penalties punctuated the first two intra-New Zealand fixtures, split neatly down the middle with 30 in each match. Precisely 40 were awarded around the tackle-area. Another 12 saw the defending team whistled for creeping offside.
By comparison, there has been an average of 20 penalties per match over the 2019-20 Premiership campaign so far. Paul Williams, who oversaw Highlanders’ 28-27 win over Chiefs, and Mike Fraser, the man in the middle for Blues’ 30-20 defeat of Hurricanes, were prominent. And busy.
There are two options here. We could complain about how the officials became a chief storyline of the sport’s happy return and bemoan how they derailed continuity. Are early-season matches usually free-flowing?
Alternatively, we could applaud Williams and Fraser for acting decisively on the promises World Rugby made in April to to enforce existing laws.
At the start of this month, Super Rugby Aotearoa doubled down. It was announced that referees would be concentrating on these aspects:
Ball carriers will be allowed only one dynamic movement after being tackled
Crawling, or any other secondary movement other than placing or passing will be penalised
Tacklers will be expected to roll away immediately in the direction of the side-line
There will be “extra focus” on the offside line with defenders expected to be “clearly” onside to provide attacking teams more space
That felt necessary. As lockdown began, it was widely accepted that the breakdown had descended into chaos, becoming a blight on the 15-a-side game at its elite level. It was arguable that referees were wilfully ignoring or accepting illegal play in a bid to maintain a semblance of ‘flow’.
For years, carriers have wriggled and rolled on the floor to make themselves moving targets for preying jackallers. Other technically illegal practices such as ‘can-openers’ and ‘crocodile rolls’ – essentially attackers spinning and flipping opponents away from the ball as part of the clear-out – have developed.
On the other side of the ball, unbalanced jackallers had been coached away from the ball by referees, slowing down the ruck illegally yet getting away without conceding a penalty. Line-speed is another factor that contributes to a feeling of claustrophobia.
Eddie Jones has been one of many vocal critics pining for a speedier game. Stringent refereeing could be the answer, or at least highly influential. But it will be difficult for the players because, as everyone settles, officials’ interpretations will still vary. Even from the small sample of one weekend, that much was obvious.
Day of the jackal
Of the 19 tackle-area penalties that Paul Williams dished out on Saturday, 16 were awarded to the defending team. Damian McKenzie, Chiefs’ 80kg full-back, forced three jackal turnovers. Here is the first one, which starts as Highlanders fly-half Mitch Hunt returns McKenzie’s clearance.
Hunt jinks in-field from the far touchline. Watch McKenzie, Mitchell Brown and Pari Pari Parkinson:
Hunt is shackled by Brown. Highlanders centre Sio Tomkinson attempts to arc around the back foot and McKenzie moves towards the ball. Parkinson is stranded in front, though:
McKenzie helps with the tackle…
…before bouncing to his feet to contest. Parkinson cannot resist. He bundles in from the side, driving into McKenzie’s rib cage:
Williams penalises him rapidly:
So often, these lateral clear-outs have been allowed. No longer, it seems.
Minutes later, Williams underlined his keenness for a quick game. Anton Lienert-Brown drops Brad Weber’s pass at first-receiver:
Williams plays advantage for the knock-on, but Aaron Smith dives in towards the ball. Lienert-Brown holds on…
…so, Williams upgrades to a penalty:
It would have been easy to restart with a Highlanders scrum here. All too regularly, players have been permitted to kill the ball after a handling error. Changing that trend would be a positive step.
Two more jarring penalties came later in the first half. Here, in the 18th minute, Pita Gus Sowakula carries into a two-man tackle from Siate Tokolahi and Josh Dickson:
Sowakula goes to ground and two Chiefs colleagues bind over the top of him. However, he lifts himself off the floor with his right arm, aiming to play a ‘squeeze ball’ through his legs with his left arm:
With the prompting of Aaron Smith, Williams whistles for another penalty against the team in possession:
This decision confronts the top two bullet points above, regarding the “one dynamic movement” carriers are allowed and the “crawling” on which referees will crack down.
Shannon Frizell fell foul of the same directive. After being tackled out wide by Chiefs fly-half Kaleb Trask…
…the Highlanders back-rower rolled…
…and then lifted himself with his left arm. Trask was still holding him, meaning the tackle had been completed:
Williams penalised Frizell.
On the whole, he rewarded jackallers that managed to adopt a strong position and lift the ball off the floor. Previously, that has not aways been enough to win a turnover.
With that in mind, Chiefs could be forgiven for feeling frustrated at the manner in which the game ended following a drop-goal exchange between McKenzie and Bryn Gatland.
After a minute of Highlanders phase-play to wind down the clock – a fairly courageous ploy given how Williams had favoured the defending team over the preceding 79 minutes – a pile-up occurs with Luke Jacobson (6) in a strong position over the ball:
The back-rower had hung in behind two teammates, Sowakula and Ryan Coxon to manufacture a jackal opportunity:
Williams chooses this moment to award just a third tackle-area penalty against the defending team, ruling that Jacobson had dived in off his feet. After the final whistle, the referee explained:
“He needs to be in a position to lift [the ball]. He just dived straight in. I realise he was desperate to get the ball.”
Tabai Matson and Warren Gatland are unconvinced in the Chiefs’ coaching box, clearly reviewing the incident on a laptop immediately:
It is fair to suggest that Williams might have been less stern on jackallers earlier in the game. Referees are becoming accustomed to these tweaks, too.
On Sunday at Eden Park, the pendulum appeared to swing back towards the attacking team.
Rolling, rolling, rolling
Mike Fraser gave out 21 tackle-area penalties, two more than Williams. Interestingly, he whistled the defending team on 13 occasions.
This was a tone-setter in the seventh minute. From a lineout strike move, Hurricanes scrum-half TJ Perenara feeds fly-half Jackson Garden-Bachop behind the run of Ngani Laumape:
When Garden-Bachop cuts back inside, he is tackled by Blues centre TJ Faiane:
Hurricanes’ support play is fast. Du’Plessis Kirifi and Vince Aso are over the ball rapidly. Faiane can only roll out towards his opponents’ posts.
This contravenes the third bullet point of the breakdown offences that Super Rugby Aotearoa referees are looking for:
Perenara does not miss a beat. He stumbles slightly theatrically…
…and glances at Fraser, who is already playing advantage:
Fraser also seemed to be stricter on jackallers supporting their bodyweight. In the 49th minute, Laumape darts in and over the ball.
However, his hands are resting on the turf beyond the ball:
Fraser spots the infringement, and succinctly explains Laumape’s offence.
“Not on the ball, not supporting bodyweight and affecting the speed of the ball.”
In the past, defenders have put themselves into an illegal body position like this before being told “hands away”.
Fraser’s priorities did look to be different from those of Williams. That said, Blues fly-half Otere Black revealed afterwards that his team had watched Highlanders’ game against the Chiefs for an idea of how the breakdown would play out.
The sides that featured on Sunday were more disciplined when it came to secondary movements on the floor, but – perhaps emboldened by Paul Williams’ refereeing – slightly overeager when jackalling and lax when rolling away.
As ever when new directives come in, there will be a period of adjustment. Although it could be put down to post-coronavirus feel-good factor in New Zealand, there was a sense that players and coaches would be constructive and receptive.
Russ Petty pointed out on Twitter that Highlanders lost 12 of their 68 rucks in possession on Saturday, only two fewer than they had surrendered over the course of five Super Rugby matches earlier this year.
Still, Aaron Smith stressed that responsibility lay with the players and that they had been “too high” in contact for much of the game. On Sunday, Hurricanes assistant coach suggested that “in a couple of weeks, we might see a 60-50 rather than a 30-20”.
On the whole, Sky Sports pundits recognised the long-term goal. Joe Wheeler pointed out that training will not have been as strict on breakdown discipline. There were a few calls for flow, but it is important to remember that such sentiment contributed to the breakdown’s disintegration.
What does this mean for the game?
It will take conviction for referees around the world to stick at this in order to gradually alter player behaviour. If they do, though, the knock-on effects will be fascinating.
You would expect the value of accuracy and creativity from set pieces to rise. This weekend, we saw the Blues deploy four jumpers towards the tail before using a clever one-man lift at the front…
…prior to Dalton Papali’i’s try:
In the sixth minute of their encounter with Highlanders, Chiefs ran this intricate play. Two jumpers are lifted but hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho goes over the top.
Brad Weber, stationed at the front of the lineout, arcs around as fly-half Kaleb Trask and blindside wing Shaun Stevenson bolt up from midfield:
Trask catches and feeds Stevenson…
…and it takes a brilliant piece of cover defence from Aaron Smith – plus a potentially early tackle – to stop Weber scoring:
Both Chiefs tries came within three phases of scrums. This one, a coast-to-coast movement finished by Sean Wainui, was extremely slick:
Sean Wainui crosses for @ChiefsRugby... a conversion and a penalty later they lead @Highlanders 16-15 in Dunedin. Half-time approaching.
Live now on @SkySports Main Event & Action or follow it here 👉 https://t.co/64PJ97s7Iw#SuperRugbyAotearoa pic.twitter.com/pbtd1gBK7d
— Sky Sports Rugby Union (@SkySportsRugby) June 13, 2020
You would also expect long periods of pick-and-go attacks to die out and for players to suffer fewer injuries at the breakdown.
More jackal turnovers should increase the number of broken-field situations. On a couple of occasions, Paul Williams apologised for blowing his whistle for holding-on penalties after a turnover had been won because he has stifled a counter-attacking chance.
With the help of their assistant referees, both Williams and Mike Fraser policed the offside line well. This should help maintain space for backlines.
Offloading and electric footwork will become more precious if teams look to avoid breakdowns entirely. France, who have a blend of disruptive defenders and intrepid attackers, would seem well set for Rugby World Cup 2023.
Finally, a quicker game would place more onus on intelligent off-the-ball movement. Theoretically, the concept of fatigue – mitigated in modern times by wholesale replacements and a stop-start rhythm to matches – could become more prominent.
The potential long-term gains are tantalising. The short-term pain of a few penalties is surely worth it.
Match images courtesy of Sky Sports