Spotlight on the Law: Accidental Offside

By | June 28, 2015

One of the most puzzling elements of Rugby Union today is the “accidental offside” rule. What makes it even more puzzling is the variation of penalties that it attracts. When is an accident not an accident? When it happens in a rugby union match, the law it seems is based on and around the current offside laws. However you don’t have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to work out that if no one is at fault then no one should pay. This is the logic behind normal civil law so why not in rugby?

It seems that logic and common sense flew out the window that day back in the distant past when a committee of well-meaning rugby law makers came up with a novel idea – accidental offside no matter how innocuous, needed to be punished one way or the other. In fairness, there needed to be some device to restart the game but the problem is that the lawmakers in all their zeal may have forgotten the age old adage that “bad law” creates bad results.

The current rule is a time bomb waiting to go off. It is such a miniscule occurrence that the probability of a bad result is low to zero however just because it is a rare occurrence, doesn’t make it any less painful for the team at fault when it is ruled against. Who can forget Wallaby Stephen Moore looking like a first class dill being penalised in a crucial Bledisloe test after receiving an unsolicited ball in an offside position. And let’s not mention Will Genia firing a deliberate pass into the offside arms of Tony Woodcock. Easy undeserved points on both occasions. An unaldulterated convoluted mess.

Imagine the hypothetical furore of a World Cup Final. Twickenham is packed to the rafters and England is two points ahead and one minute from fulltime glory. The Queen and her consorts are present and ready to crown the victors and at this late stage, it’s England for all money. By pure accident an England player hacks the ball ahead which rebounds off an opponent into the arms of a team member standing offside.

It’s a brave call but the referee has no option. It’s a full arm penalty and England lose by 1. The travesty is palpable and the crowd gets ugly. The officials are whisked away under a security cordon and most likely straight out of the UK for their own safety.

An exaggeration perhaps but such a woeful outcome is not beyond the realms under the current rules. Whether it is a test match or a club match, if an offside player hasn’t time to react then it does not make sense that they should cop full arm penalties on what the officials or TMO did or did not see. So what is the solution?

Firstly, the long answer is that the law has to change with the times. The game is so fast and furious now that some low level offences need to be mitigated. Rugby officials need to review liability so that players are rewarded for endeavour and ensure that teams do not prosper from “innocent” and unavoidable opposition mistakes. World Rugby may well promote open running rugby but far too many games are still being won and lost off the back of “soft” penalty kicks.

The short answer is that the World Rugby rules committee need to revisit the “experimental law variations” mooted a few years ago that were aimed at streamlining and speeding up the game. Short arm quick fire penalties promote running spectacular rugby and should be encouraged above all else. My guess is that not much will change in the immediate future because the politics of rugby law reform is slower than an overweight third grade prop.

The time between mooting, trialling and instigation of new rules can add up to a season or two or, as has been the case lately, new rules will only be considered following the World Cup. The fact is that bad law is littered throughout the game and it’s affecting the spectacle. Let’s hope that the dreaded scenario above or something like it doesn’t come to mar the 2015 Rugby World Cup.


  1. Sharminator

    29th June 2015 at 4:02 am

    Nice try … but you seem confused about the laws of rugby.

    The basic principle behind the range of laws in rugby relating to “offside” is simple: a player may not derive any advantage for his team from being intentionally or accidentally in front of the ball or the ball carrier.
    Law 11.6 (a)
    When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, the player is accidentally offside. If the player’s team gains no advantage from this, play continues. If the player’s team gains an advantage, a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.
    Law 11.6 (b)
    When a player hands the ball to a team-mate in front of the first player, the receiver is offside. Unless the receiver is considered to be intentionally offside (in which case a penalty kick is awarded), the receiver is accidentally offside and a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

    As you can see, in both cases of Accidental Offside, the law says that a scrum should be formed, there is no penalty (why? Because it is seen as an unintentional infringement)

    It seems like a reasonable law in both cases. A player is accidentally touched by or passed the ball, when infront of the last ball carrier, and we have a scrum (reinforcing the law against a forward pass). A player in front of the ball is accidentally touched by the ball carrier, and if gives an advantage to the team in posession, and we also have a scrum.

    There are two further laws relevant to what people sometimes mistakenly call accidental offside, but they actually deal with a team gaining advantage from players in front of the ball carrier.

    Law 10.1 (b) Running in front of a ball carrier. A player must not intentionally move or stand in front of a team-mate carrying the ball thereby preventing opponents from tackling the current ball carrier or the opportunity to tackle potential ball carriers when they gain possession.
    Sanction: Penalty kick
    Law 10.1 (e) Ball carrier running into team-mate. A player carrying the ball must not intentionally run into team-mates in front of that player.
    Sanction: Penalty kick
    These two laws cover the same idea, that a player with the ball cannot intentionally run into a team mate or have team mates in front of him prevent him from being tackled.

    Regarding the situation you mentioned above, it is not covered by any of the accidental offside laws.

    “By pure accident an England player hacks the ball ahead which rebounds off an opponent into the arms of a team member standing offside.
    It’s a brave call but the referee has no option. It’s a full arm penalty and England lose by 1.”
    This would not be governed by the accidental offside laws.

    An England player kicked the ball. As soon as that ball was kicked all the relevant laws about offside from a kick come into play, whether it was a kick, a hack, a drop kick or a punt.

    This situation would be governed by other parts of law relating to a teammate being offside after a kick, Laws 11.1, 11.2, 11.3, 11.4. 11.5 and 11.9
    The first relevant law is that an offside player has an obligation to retreat. If he does not retreat he will be penalised. I cant see how a retreating player could catch a ball bouncing off the opposition, so it seems unlikely.

    That player may be put onside by running behind the team mate who kicked, or by the kicked or another onside player running past him, or by an opponent running 5 metres with the ball, or kicking, passing, or intentionally passing the ball (but the last three in particualy only apply as long as the player was not within 10 metres of the opponent who played the ball – which seems unlikely if he ws able to catch it).
    In the case you stated it seems a simple case of offside

    11.4 (d)
    When a player who is offside under the 10-metre Law plays the ball which has been misfielded by an opponent, the offside player is penalised.
    Sanction: Penalty kick

    Why have this law? Because if you didnt then players would spend the game standing offside in front of kickers looking for opportunities to benefit their team.

    Rugby has lots of laws, but is fairly simple when it comes down to it .. stay behind the ball.

  2. bill

    1st July 2015 at 2:36 pm

    …”if an offside player hasn’t time to react then it does not make sense that they should cop a full arm penalty” …lawrence Dellagio he wrong?

  3. Maureen

    19th October 2015 at 4:18 am

    Guess what!?! The accidental offside rule HAS caused a ruckus in the RWC!

  4. RortyDog

    19th October 2015 at 8:39 am

    …and exactly the scenario above. Unfortunately the Scot involved did not have the ball bounce off him, but he deliberately seized the ball in an offside position, making it intentional. From the kick Australia won by a point.

    • Peter

      20th October 2015 at 4:01 am

      The Scot who caught the ball was still in the remains of the line out. He did not deliberately catch the ball nor did he deliberately move in front of his team mates. All forwards in line outs are always in front of their team mates. If the half back coughs up the ball into the lineout where it lands in the hands of a forward that is not an offside penalty, it would be a scrum. Scotland were very hard done by in that game.

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