With the Six Nations championship due to start tomorrow, Law Donut has been asked to explain the laws of rugby in the same clear way that we explain legal minefields such as shareholder disputes and divorce settlements. We are happy to oblige. Rory MccGwire, founder of Atom Content Marketing and the Donut sites, is a rugby coach and a (very) amateur ref:
Whenever I watch rugby on TV, and whenever I referee a match, there are screams of "Referee!?!" from all sides. So here are 12 laws to explain why, sometimes, referees blow their whistles, and why other times they let play carry on. Let's start with the more simple rules:
- Obstruction: You cannot obstruct an opponent. You can only tackle the person with the ball. (Penalty)
- Tackle: You cannot tackle early, late, or above the shoulders/armpits. You must wrap with your arms, and not simply collide. (Penalty)
- Dangerous play: In rugby you cannot do anything that is unfair or dangerous. (Penalty)
- Offside: Make sure the ball and the player in your team playing the ball are ahead of you; otherwise, you may be offside. But scrums, lineouts, rucks, mauls and kicks all have their own offside rules. (Penalty)
- Advantage: When a law is broken, the ref plays 'advantage' if there is a chance that the offended-against team may gain an advantage. If no advantage is quickly gained, the ref will blow their whistle for the original offence.
- Forward pass: A forward pass is not permitted. This is simple to judge if the passing player is standing still, but is not if he is sprinting. Here's why. Imagine a player running at 20mph and passing backwards over his head at 5mph: this totally legal (ie backwards) pass actually went forwards at 15mph. This explains why some referees allow some passes that, to the spectators, look forward. The direction of the passer's hands is usually key. (Scrum)
- Knock on: You are allowed to fumble the ball and regain control. But if the ball hits the ground or another player before you regain control, it is a knock on. (Scrum)
- Roll away: When a player is tackled to the ground, he may immediately pass or place the ball. He cannot play the ball again until he is on his feet. Meanwhile the tackler must release the tackled player and get to his feet before he can play the ball. The tackler cannot just lie there and get in the way, so you hear refs shouting "Tackler roll away". (Penalty)
- Ruck: A ruck happens when at least one player from each team are in contact with each other over a ball that is on the ground. Once a ruck is formed, you cannot handle the ball until it emerges from the ruck - either from heeling the ball back, or driving the opponent off the ball. (Penalty)
- Hands away: The first defender who arrives after the tackle has a golden opportunity to win the ball, because he is allowed to keep his hands on the ball even after a ruck has formed. Whereas other players can only use their feet in the ruck. You often hear a ref shouting "Ruck formed, hands away". (Penalty)
- Maul: A maul forms when an attacker is held up by a defender, and a second attacker binds onto the ball carrier. You often hear a ref shouting "Maul formed". The attackers need to get the ball out quickly, otherwise the ref will award a scrum to the defenders. (Scrum)
- Materiality: We play rugby for fun. So to help the game flow, referees use a concept called materiality - particularly in more junior rugby, where the players are still learning the rules and are frequently a little offside (etc). If these minor offences do not materially affect the balance of the game, the ref can allow the game to continue and give warnings rather than stopping the game every 10 seconds. But the whistle still goes for errors such as knock-ons and any deliberate foul play. (Unfortunately few parent-spectators know about this concept, which leads to a lot of frustration on the sidelines.)
With thanks to Andy Nelson, Chris Groves and Tony "Specsavers" Rigg (all from St Brendans RFC in Bristol), and Chris Smith and Emma Jones, all of whom can share the blame for anything contentious. And for those of you who want to remind me that women also watch, and play, rugby (and, in the case of the England team, with much more success than the men), the male pronoun is just for ease of writing. Honest.