It has long been suspected that referees are guessing when it comes to calls at scrum or ruck time, but blatantly making laws up as they go along?

Given that I write quite a bit on the game of rugby I make a conscious effort every single year to brush up on the laws of the game.  The IRB website is a brilliant resource to find all you need to know about the laws of the game and you can even sign up to do a couple of exams.

The reason I do this is because there is nothing more frustrating to me than listening to a commentator on television that forms conclusions on game situations by stating what he believes are the actual laws of the game and getting it completely wrong.  I have however become used to this to some extent but I was quite shocked to read recently how some descriptions or law applications used by referees every single game is not mentioned once in the official laws of the game.  In other words, referees are just making up stuff as they go along.

Paul Dobson from Rugby365 is regarded as an expert on the laws of the game and it was in his piece recently about the applications of the laws in the scrum where evidence of these ‘make up as we go along’ laws were exposed.

Here are some extracts of that piece;

The ‘Hit’

There is nothing in the law which speaks of or suggests or describes a hit. The nearest that exists is a condemnation.

Law 20.1 (I) Charging. A front row must not form at a distance from its opponents and rush against them. This is dangerous play.
Sanction: Penalty kick.

Is a hit charging? It could certainly be construed as such and if both sides do it, then both sides are wrong, which does not make it right.

In fact the law says that the engage call, and presumably the same applies to set, is not a command but an indication that the front rows may come together when ready.

‘Come together’, not hit.

In fact the hit may just be the root of the scrum problem.

It follows, if the law makes no reference to the hit, fading on the hit and not taking the hit could just be nonsense.

Standing up in a scrum as an infringement does not exist in law either.

There are two bits of law which deal with going up.

Law 20.3 (I) Player forced upwards. If a player in a scrum is lifted in the air, or is forced upwards out of the scrum, the referee must blow the whistle immediately so that players stop pushing.

Law 20.8 (I) Lifting or forcing an opponent up. A front row player must not lift an opponent in the air, or force an opponent upwards out of the scrum, either when the ball is being thrown in or afterwards. This is dangerous play.
Sanction: Penalty kick

There is no sanction for a player standing up, presumably because there is no infringement.

It is unlikely that it ever will be an infringement because a player usually stands up because of pressure. If that pressure is, as it is most likely to be, on his neck, he is a player in danger. If it were a law that he could not stand up, a player who injures his neck in such a circumstance would have the right to sue the law-makers.

There is nothing in the laws of senior rugby that says it is illegal to wheel intentionally or deliberately. That law exists in Under-19 variations (Law 20.11 (a)). It does not exist in senior rugby.

The wheel does exist in law.

(a) If a scrum is wheeled through more than 90 degrees, so that the middle line has passed beyond a position parallel to the touchline, the referee must stop play and order another scrum.
(b) This new scrum is formed at the place where the previous scrum ended. The ball is thrown in by the team not in possession at the time of the stoppage. If neither team win possession, it is thrown in by the team that previously threw it in.

Running or walking around are terms used when a scrum is wheeled. The terms do not exist in law and the concept is vague enough to be suspect..

From the above it seems that referees came together and decided amongst themselves how they will manipulate laws to suit them (or hide their inability to efficiently apply the laws).

In discussions on this and other forums I have personally stated that I do not agree with the popular sentiment that the laws of the game are too complicated or that there are simply too many of them.  The laws of the game are simple and in my view quite easy to understand.

The game however is suffering from the thousands of interpretations of the laws (read personal manipulation) and some referees inability to manage a game.  My view on the laws of rugby has not changed in 8 years where I still believe referees should move away from trying to interpret the laws (or make stuff up as they go along) and simply apply them.

You can read the full article on Rugby365 here

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  1. Hi Morne.

    With the hit you are totally correct. There is nothing in the laws that require anyone to take the hit.

    As for wheeling. How did they create that wheel? If it was created by either pulling or any of the illegal methods mentioned in Law 20 front rowers are not allowed to do then the wheel is illegal. If you have done so perfectly inside the laws then the wheel is legal.

  2. Reply to Neuen @ 11:17 am:


    I agree, any illegal action must be punished. Whether it is scrumming up, in, pulling or twisting an opposing front rower.

    But those actions in itself are dangerous and illegal because it can cause a scrum to collapse and players to get injured.

    The result of those actions are inconsequential – punish the action.

    Wheeling a scrum is a tactic – you can win the put in of the ball for it, so the laws almost encourage players to wheel a scrum provided they do so legally.

    There is no such thing as an illegal wheeling, there are offenses such as twisting, collapsing, pulling and not scrumming straight.

    The contention here are the application or interpretation of the laws by referees and what teams are penalised for.

  3. Yes it is Morne. But most people are confusing themselves when they read the laws.

    First off all forget about wheeling and collapsing. Now when they go down for the scrum they will look if the front rowers are doing anything that is illegal like let go of the binding , do a slingshot, push into the hooker. Further more any of these actions are illegal

    (a) Striking before the throw-in (‘foot up’). All front row players must place their feet to leave
    a clear tunnel. Until the ball has left the scrum half’s hands, they must not raise or advance
    a foot. They must not do anything to stop the ball being thrown in to the scrum correctly or
    touching the ground at the correct place.
    Sanction: Free Kick
    (b) Striking after the throw-in. Once the ball touches the ground in the tunnel, any front row
    player may use either foot to try to win possession of the ball.
    (c) Kicking-out. A front row player must not intentionally kick the ball out of the tunnel in the
    direction from which it was thrown in.
    Sanction: Free Kick
    (d) If the ball is kicked out unintentionally, the same team must throw it in again.
    (e) If the ball is repeatedly kicked out, the referee must treat this as intentional and penalise the
    Sanction: Penalty kick
    (f) Swinging. A front row player must not strike for the ball with both feet. No player may
    intentionally raise both feet from the ground, either when the ball is being thrown in or
    Sanction: Penalty kick
    (g) Twisting, dipping or collapsing. Front row players must not twist or lower their bodies, or
    pull opponents, or do anything that is likely to collapse the scrum, either when the ball is
    being thrown in or afterwards.
    Sanction: Penalty kick
    (h) Referees must penalise strictly any intentional collapsing of the scrum. This is dangerous play.
    Sanction: Penalty kick
    Lifting or forcing an opponent up. A front row player must not lift an opponent in the air,
    or force an opponent upwards out of the scrum, either when the ball is being thrown in or
    afterwards. This is dangerous play.
    Sanction: Penalty kick

    So those actions do not get performed only when you collapse a scrum or a specific thing that happened in a scrum. If a front rower do any of those things he gets penalized. But referees will use their own rugby jargon when they give a reason for the penalty. Other jargon you will come across regularly is sealing off. It is not in the laws but its just a slang word referees use to make the explanation simpler. When they penalize for a wheel then they basically penalize because a player did something illegal like pulling to get that wheel.

    A game earlierr in the SR competition between the Brumbies and the Cheetahs the Brumbies where awarded a penalty when the scrum wheeled. But it was not for the wheel. It was because the prop popped up. But in that case the referee was wrong as he allowed the scrum to go more than the 90 degrees and then the front rower put up. By law in fact the scrum should have reset opposing teams ball. That was a illegal wheel.

    So basically most people hear the jargon and go and try and find where is it in the laws books. Its not there its just slang.

  4. Reply to Neuen @ 11:42 am:

    The same can be said for pushing the opposing team off the ball by scrumming up, binding on the player’s arm or lifting the opposing player.

    However, pushing the opposing team off the ball is not illegal in itself, illegal actions to achieve this are.

    Same for wheeling, there is no such thing as an illegal wheeling of the scrum, it is what teams aim to do and is used as a tactic to win the ball. You have to however remain within the laws of the game whilst doing it as everything in rugby.

    My bone I have to pick with referees who confuse the viewers, players and coaches even is through their interpretation of laws which is really simple.

    Just apply the laws, don’t make up your own shit as you go along.

  5. One day I’m going to drive down to CT and shoot your because of your apostrophe catastrophes…

    Plurals do not get an apostrophe. When in doubt… just leave it.

    So I’d like to hear what OO says about this being a front rower.

    What could happen in a wheel if the one prop of the opposition is just weaker than the guy pushing him and he goes backwards whilst his propping partner is capable of holding his ground? Surely that is a successful scrum and not an “illegal” wheel?

    The ruck is probably my biggest bugbear in this regard and in particular idiots who blow games involving the All Blacks where the “gate” simply is not policed, “sealing” is selectively policed and the tackled player’s right to placement free of interference is simply ignored. Wynne Barnes is especially weak in this area and my suspicion (having watched some English domestic rugby over Christmas) is he has no understanding of rugby

  6. @Morne

    That is true. That is why a referee would go through a checklist to see if they are doing it legally. The idea here is to penalize the guilty party before it collapses or any serious injury may occur due to a result of it. Collapsing the scrum is just a lingo. But the referee will penalize a player for doing a xxx thing in the scrum because he notice he did not bind correctly etc etc. So everything is in the laws to which they adhere to.


    David a whip wheel is illegal. Loosehead hold his opponent where the tight head pulls. Lets go to the law book. Are a tighead allowed to pull his opponent.

    (g) Twisting, dipping or collapsing. Front row players must not twist or lower their bodies, or
    PULL OPPONENTS, or do anything that is likely to collapse the scrum, either when the ball is
    being thrown in or afterwards.
    Sanction: Penalty kick

    SO you clearly see to achieve that whip wheel that law have been broken.

    As for the breakdown. A referee can have two approaches. He can either over police the break down or he can under police it.

    Over police he will be strict at the breakdown. That will mean normally a couple of penalties early in the game but you will also see more tries being scored as players will then take a step backwards. When that is done players can not slow the ball up and defenses do not have so much time rearranging their defenses.

    Under police he can let things go. Players will get away with stuff. They are allowed to slow ball up and you will have a game with less tries if any at all. Good example was the Australia vs Wales game this past European tour.

    That is why Andre Watson was one of the top referees in the world.He overpoliced the breakdown and you will note some of his matches the tries being scored.

  7. Well I haven’t played rugby for nigh on twnety years now, but in my view the “wheel” is a more modern day occurence than a regulat occurence.

    A weak prop will tend to drop or collapse, so even when that happens it should still not be a wheel.

    The “sideways shuffle” whereby a whole pack start running sideways clearly indicates an intentional wheel.

  8. When last was a side penalised for “foot up”?

    In the old days this was a not too uncommon,
    but since the 9’s are allowed to put the ball
    under the feet of the locks, this law has
    become obsolete.

    It seems all refs have just given up on the
    correct scrum feed, so tightheads are very
    seldom seen.

    They just want the scrum out of the way, and
    gives a sigh of relief once it’s over without
    3 restarts, a free kick or a penalty.

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