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.