Monday 19 July 2010

Seeing Red (and Yellow) About Rugby Rules

The All Blacks have played five tests so far this season, and we have seen four cards (1 red, three yellow). I have thought for years, that sin-binnings and sendings-off were bad for the game. Since all four of the cards in the All Black tests this year have gone in New Zealand’s favour, I can vent and not be accused of sour grapes.

The simple fact is that 15 on 14 rugby is not a proper contest in games involving the top teams; even 10 minutes can be enough to settle a game and make the remaining 70 minutes irrelevant. The problem is not with the referees; Roussouw’s yellow in the weekend was harsh, but the remaining three this year were clear cut given the laws as currently written. The problem is with the laws themselves. There needs to be a way of dealing with foul play and deliberate infringement that doesn’t require turning games into a farce. It would take only a couple of minor tweaks of the laws to do this.

First, players guilty of clear foul play should be penalised and sent off, but a replacement should be allowed. If necessary, the subsequent penalties imposed at a judicial hearing can be increased if that is needed to create the appropriate disincentives.

To deal with professional fouls, the on-field costs of infringements need to be increased. It is probably no coincidence that the extent of professional fouls has increased over time as the value of a try has increased (from 3 to 4 to 5 points since 1972) relative to that of a penalty. The lawmakers will not want to change the balance back, as they want to encourage teams to be constructive in their use of possession. So we need a different way of increasing the cost to a team of deliberate infringement.

My suggestion is that when a team is awarded a penalty, the clock should stop and stay stopped if the team takes a shot at goal. In that case, play should be restarted with a scrum at the point of infringement, whether or not the kick at goal is successful. That is, if a team is infringes when the opposition is attacking close to the goal line, the cost is the likelihood of allowing a kick for three points, but with no offsetting benefit of regaining possession and field position with a kick-off from halfway, and no opportunity to use the infringement to run time off the clock when holding on to a narrow (but more than 3-point) lead. In the event of a penalty try, teams would have the option of taking the kick at goal and ensuing scrum, or the certain 5 points and centre-field conversion.

I would expect that these rule changes would result in both less infringement, and more games being decided by tries rather than penalties. But on this blog, of course, the question is, Would there be any offsetting behaviour that produced undesirable consequences? Comments welcome.


  1. Cool post. I like the idea. Even under this rule there will be some advantage to professional foul, notwithstanding the points cost, when a breakout has happened and a try is nearly certain. Fouling still buys time to organise.

    Because field position affects the value of both the penalty and the scrum, I would expense professional foul under this system to be much more likely nearer the sideline than in the middle. The expected cost of a penalty under the posts is about 3; near the sideline about 1. The expected cost of a scrum under the posts might be something like 3 but near the sideline probably 1-2.

    The penalty shot would have to go dead even if it misses and is caught by the opposing player in goal or in the field. Normally this would be play on, but playing on when the next stoppage would cause a scrum under the posts would make the referee's decision when to blow, which is frequently arbitrary and affected by things like safety and judgments on if the ball is coming out, becomes of paramount importance if the play then goes back to where the infringement occurred. So I think the ball must be dead no matter what after a penalty shot.

    It isn't clear there would be much in the way of second order effects from the status quo. The expected cost of infringement probably doesn't change too much, given the disastrous but infrequent cost of yellow cards vs more frequent but less costly penalty shots plus attacking scrum. Would a flakner be more or less inclined to dive into a ruck to try and win the ball under this system? My guess: about the same. Which is important, because the new law interpretation seems to have got that balance about right now: there is enough ball security to attack from deep, but not so much that it becomes a waste of time for defenders to pile into a ruck to try and get a turnover, thus sucking players into rucks and leaving space in the backline to attack. It isn't clear to me this rule affects that all-important balance, which is good.

    The rule does give rise to the 10 pointer: a penalty, and then immediate try and conversion from the following scrum. That's a lot of points. And, more widely, it gives rise to a 17 pointer, say when a likely try is denied at one end say through a late intercept, race downfield, foul on the line at the other end, then a 10 point score. That's a lot of points. If it's 20 all with 15 minutes to play, 10 points is a match killer. On the other hand, field position must be earned, generally try scoring is going to be made less likely by fouling, because defense is given time to organise at the expense of a penalty shot, so probably 10 pointers will be infrequent. But I'd be concerned about 10 pointers following from non-professional fouls - does a straight penalty cause the shot then scrum, or is it only a pro foul that does it? Conceding 10 points for an accidental off side would be tough.

    I worry somewhat that the 'shape of the game' would change. Would rugby stop looking like rugby if a rule like this comes in. That's what happened with a silly free kick regime that, thankfully, departed this year. If the penalty goes dead no matter what, that's a change. Penalty kick (2 mins?) + repeated re-setting of scrum (up to say 4 mins?) could produce a lot of downtime all at once. Penalties frequently result from scrums, so then what - another free shot at goal and then another scrum? This could give rise to endless points conceded by a weak scrum, and indeed gaming of the system by the stronger scrum. So there might need to be a rule that limits how many times around this goes. And if there is such a rule, then pro fouls are back on again, particularly if yellow cards are out. Would it be satisfying to see, say, three penalties conceded in 5 minutes and then a converted try scored for a haul of 16 points? I worry about this.

    Still a neat idea.

  2. I agree that Roussouw was hard done by, his actions hardly warranted a penalty let alone a 10 minute rest. However I don't believe a sin-binning is overly punitive for a serious breach of conduct. Generally a yellow is given out for dangerous play (spear tackles and the like) or for repeated infringement following a referees warning (slowing down rucks, etc.) In both cases such actions potentially deny points to an attacking side. It doesn't seem unreasonable to then penalise the infringing side by sidelining a player for 10 minutes. These are professional players who ought to be well enough coached and informed of the rules and regulations of the game that they know better than to foul so blatantly. Or if they do, then they need to know that by so doing they let the entire team down.

    There are complications when the sin-binned player is from the front row, a temporary substitution is then allowed during the setting of a scrum etc, and another forward, usually a flanker, is sent to the sidelines until a convenient break in play. The player who is briefly subbed in these cases has done nothing wrong, yet still has to cool his heels for a short while. And of course there are times when a professional foul giving away a penalty is a cheaper option than allowing the opposition to score a try.

    These to me area more compelling reasons to fiddle with the yellow card rules. There needs to be sufficient disincentive to infringe, and it is getting the balance right that is key. Your ideas have some merit, but I'm not convinced that the current system is sufficiently broken to warrant tweaking it in the manner you suggest. I'd still be interested to see them trialled though, just to see how they would work out.

  3. Couple more things occur to me.

    First, if yellow cards are taken out of the game this rule will cause more serious infringement outside kicking range.

    Second, it has the tremendous benefit of smoothing punishment, removing large, one-off and somewhat arbitrary calls by the referee. This is a benefit even without reduced infringement, and I think is likely to increase fan and player satisfaction.

    Third, as you allude to in the article, I think, what happens if the defending team concedes a penalty but the team with advantage scores? Under this rule they must still have the penalty shot otherwise the defending team (e.g. one leading by 8 or 9 points with 1 minute to go) might end up with weird incentives that encourages them to concede a try to avoid the risk of a 10 pointer.

    So what happens with a team that scores with a penalty advantage? Would it go: try, then conversion, then penalty shot? Somehow that doesn't sound like rugby to me. Abandoning the advantage rule for these kinds of penalties, so that the referee blows immediately regardless, would avoid this problem, but then advantage is intrinsic to rugby.

    I'm going off the idea a bit. Rugby would start looking weird, to my eyes, under these rules.

    One solution is to ask the South Africans to stop being such niggly bastards.

    What about a rule that said that each penalty advantage in effect at the time a try is scored, or penalty kicked, adds one extra point, advantages being cumulative. Touch judges keep count and referee counts up and down as advantages come and go. Keeps a smooth punishment function, doesn't produce multiple kicks at goal, and encourages use of advantage.

  4. Neat idea, but I guess the point of the yellow cards is to be punitive for serious breaches - if you don't want to be sin binned then don't offend. Granted that the yellow for Roussouw was extremely excessive, but again it was his actions that caused the referee's (over)reaction.

    If there are no yellow cards then surely there is a greater incentive to commit really obvious professional fouls when defending inside the opposition 22 (i.e. when you've just coughed the ball up on attack); they're not going to be able to kick a penalty from that range and a scrum inside the 22 isn't generally considered an great advantage. Especially if the offending side has a superior scrum.

  5. @ Matt:

    Field position (along with minutes elapsed, and current score) all affect the value of a penalty or a scrum, and also affect the value of a yellow card and the value of an undetected infringement. It is not possible (and probably not desirable) to construct a schedule of penalties finely calibrated to make the expected cost of the penalty equal to the expected benefit from the infringement. But currently, the referee has to decide between imposing too light a cost (the possibility but not certainty of conceding three points added to the certain gain in field position) or too great a cost (yellow card).

    I’m not worried about 10-point plays; it is only 3 more than the current possible 7, and the additional 7 would still have to be earned by breaking down the defence after a re-start. And a 17-point turnaround is essentially the same as the current possible 14. I do worry about the possibility of repeated penalties at the re-start scrums, however. Maybe until referees stop being random-number generators at the scrum, the restart should be with a tap.

    @ Lats and Duncan: If yellow cards were rare and consistently well-merited decisions, I would agree with you. But they are not. We got through over a 100 years of test rugby (1871 to 1979) with only five players being sent off (and two of them were in the same game, so not creating inbalance). Since then, particularly since the introduction of yellow cards, there has been an explosion in their use, and may of the decisions have been highly questionable.

    What I would do with this rule change is lower the threshold of likelihood for penalty tries, and let the referee use the degree of intent as information to update his beliefs about the likelihood that a try would be scored. That is, if the player was so convinced that a try was likely that he indulged in a blatant infringement, then the referee should conclude that it was likely as well. Under this standard, O’Gara would not have been carded in the Irish test this year, but would have conceded a penalty try.

  6. @Seamus So you're proposing that yellow cards would essentially be done away with for professional fouls, but would be kept for dangerous play (spear tackles, eye gouging, taking out players while in the air, etc.)?

    I can see that this would work for fouls inside the 22 that deliberately prevent a try from being scored. But for repeated infringing in areas of the park where scoring a try would not have a high likelihood I think there needs to be a stronger disincentive than a penalty, especially if the range is sufficient that there is also little chance of a successful kick at goal. Sure, a penalty gives a territorial advantage to the other team, and this is valuable in itself, but I'm not sure this is compensation enough in the face of repeated foul play.

  7. @Lats

    No,I would do away with Yellow cards altogether, but keep the red card for foul play. But I don't want 15-on 14 footy, so I would allow the sent-off player to be replaced and increase penalties at the subsequent judiciary. This, incidently, is the rule for sendings off in American Football, and it is one of the cleanest sports in terms of foul play that I have seen, despite being a high contact sport.

  8. @Seamus - OK, I get it. That doesn't sound all that bad. It gets around the messy situation of subbing front row forwards come scrum time, and forces early subs from the bench should a player be sent off. In addition to facing the judiciary, said offending player would probably also get a sound chewing out by the coach for lessening his ability to use the bench tactically. Unless of course the player was the team's enforcer and had been given instructions to take someone out :)
    I am a little concerned that repeated infringing without a yellow card option might lead to a more penalty driven style of play, dare I say it a more northern hemisphere style, as I imagine refs would be less likely to opt for the red card for slowing down rucks, etc. But I still see merits in your idea.