Monday, February 21, 2005

The Rolling Maul and the Laws of Rugby Union

Dr. Bleddyn Jones (Maesteg), the Dept.'s resident Welshman and leading expert on inter alia the history of military latrines, initiated a discussion at the departmental coffee hour this morning on the upcoming Six Nations Rugby matches--Wales play France at Paris next Saturday, England play Ireland at Dublin. Dr Bleddyn Jones (Maesteg) has been full of himself these days, because Wales have been playing well. A rarity apparently. In the course of the morning discussion, I pointed out what I believe to be a serious flaw in the laws of rugby. It concerns the "Rolling Maul." I've posted before on how a few changes in the laws of soccer (or football, as the British insist) and the laws of fox-hunting could improve those sports. Rugby seems to me to be in need of a similar fix.

For those who don't know much about rugby, the simple description is that it's like NFL football, except (i) you can't pass the ball forward, (ii) you can only tackle with arms (thus padding is neither allowed nor needed); and (iii) you can't oggle the cheerleaders, because there aren't any. The axiom of rugby--and that which makes it such an exciting spectacle--is that noone can be in front of the ball without being "offside." This leads to sweeping movements from one side of the field to the other with the ball constantly being passed backwards. It's a great game.

The rolling maul, however, contradicts the axiom of rugby, because it allows a team to bind together in front of the ball carrier. I'm not the only one to think that "the rolling maul" ought to go. The correspondent of Rugby Heaven (an Australian publication unfortunately behind a subscription wall) calls it "the last refuge of Neanderthal rugby that once dominated the game." He goes on to add:

Rolling mauls may be beautiful to tight forwards (past and present) and other ironheads, but they are ugly spectacles, especially for the uninitiated, and they are ugly for the game. In rugby, it is illegal for a player to "shepherd", or stand between the ball-carrier and the tackler. But shepherding is the essence of the rolling maul, which can rumble on and on because the defenders simply can't get their hands on the player with the ball.

If someone pulls the whole ugly edifice to the ground he is penalised. If a defender hits the deck, he becomes the rugby equivalent of road kill. Forwards built like beer barrels, with as much attacking flair, can hog the ball, leaning on each other, while slowly rutting in the general direction of the goalposts.

My worry is that in the current Six Nations tournament "the rolling maul" has been perfected by the least imaginative teams--Bernard Laporte's current embarrassingly pedestrian French team, for instance. The Irish also rely on "the rolling maul" a lot. They used it to beat a superior Welsh team last year. My worry is that the rolling maul will always work to the disadvantage of the more adventurous attacking teams like the Welsh.

Short of the legal abolition of the rolling maul, I think that the way to defend against it is for the defending front row on some prearranged signal to disengage en masse from the maul--in the rugby equivalent of the old Arsenal offside trap--and by doing so play all the people at the front of the maul offside. My colleagues in the Dept. of Peace and War studies were skeptical. Some think that under the current laws this would simply allow the team with the ball to continue binding together and march unopposed towards the tryline. Geoffrey ("Reader in Peace Studies") is popping over to Foyle's on the way home tonight to buy a copy of the latest "The Laws of Rugby Union," so that we can check the precise wording of the law. Others (including Dr. Bleddyn Jones [Maesteg]) think that my proposed offside trap wouldn't work, because the defending front row wouldn't be able to disengage from the attacking front row. Using the departmental teapot, we conducted an impromptu, if disappointingly inconclusive, experiment in the corridor. I now owe the department a new teapot.

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