No more scrums from a mark for Boks after World Rugby changes free kick law

No more scrums from a mark for Boks after World Rugby changes free kick law
Referee Wayne Barnes oversees the scrum during the Rugby World Cup Final between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France in Paris on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Dan Mullan / Getty Images)

The rare sight of a scrum being called from a mark will be outlawed from 1 July in one of several law changes World Rugby is introducing in the coming months.

The more cynical among us might think that the Springboks have penetrated so deeply into the psyche of World Rugby that law changes are being made with the sole intention of stopping the world champions.

It’s unlikely that this is the case. But there is little doubt that the Springboks, with their power game and team composition consisting of nearly two full packs of world-class forwards, are at least partly responsible for one change, after it was announced that scrums from free kicks will no longer be allowed.

This is one of three law changes that will come into effect on 1 July, with several others set to be tested at global competitions in the coming months.

World Rugby stated that the changes and possible future changes “seek to increase rugby’s accessibility and relevance among a broader, younger fanbase by embracing on-field innovation and reimagined presentation of the sport with compelling storytelling”. No, I don’t understand either.

Depowering the scrum

What is apparent is that the new laws appear to view scrums as a hindrance, rather than an integral part of what makes rugby union unique.

At the Stade de France in October, Springbok fullback Damian Willemse famously called for a scrum from a mark during the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against France.

A mark is essentially a free kick and nothing in the laws stopped the Boks from opting for a scrum, even though no one could think of another example of it being done. Despite losing territory, the Boks backed their scrum to hurt Les Bleus. And it did as they won a penalty from the set piece.

That incident was hailed as revolutionary by some but decried as being against the spirit of the game by others. It’s impossible to imagine why doing something which had never been tried in more than 100 years was deemed unfair.

World Rugby on Thursday announced that: “Under Law 20.3, it will no longer be possible to choose a scrum from a free kick. Free kicks must either be tapped or kicked to encourage more ball in flow.”

Let’s pause there for a moment. Never mind a scrum from a mark, which as we know has only been done once, this change means that any time there is a free kick, a team cannot opt for a scrum.

Imagine a scenario where two teams are scrumming and the referee penalises the attacking team’s scrumhalf for a skew feed. It is a free kick. Under the new laws, the team awarded the free kick cannot ask for another scrum, even though the infringement happened at a scrum.

What about a situation where a team with a weaker scrum manipulates a free kick, even against itself? The team with the stronger scrum will no longer have the option to call for another scrum. This seems unfair, because scrums are vital to rugby.

In this scramble to encourage “ball-in-hand rugby” to make the sport more palatable to a younger audience, a cornerstone of the game is being undermined.

Ironically, there is a school of thought that believes scrums do lead to more space on the field, and therefore more incentive to keep the ball in hand, because they concentrate 18 players (including the scrumhalves) in a small area. That opens up space in a larger area.

Under the new law, tap-and-go penalties, kicking for touch, or launching an up-and-under are the only available options from a free kick.

Other changes

The second change focuses on kicks in open play, and the clause commonly known as the “Dupont Law” because of France’s propensity to engage in “kick-tennis”.

In future, it will no longer be possible for a player to be put onside when an opposition player catches the ball and runs 5m, or passes the ball. Laws 10.1 and 10.4 will make clear that offside players must attempt to retreat, creating space for the opposition team to play. This should reduce the amount of kick-tennis in the game.

Ironically, Willemse’s call for a scrum from a mark against France was the result of precisely this problem of kick-tennis.

The third change set to come into effect on 1 July is outlawing the action of rolling/twisting/or pulling of a player on their feet in the tackle area (the “crocodile roll”). This is essentially about player safety and not a change that many would argue against.

Closed law trials 

In addition to the three changes, there are also ongoing closed law trials in selected competitions such as the U20 World Championships and the Pacific Nations Cup.

The 20-minute red card, which is currently being used in the U20 Rugby Championship in Queensland, will also be used at the U20 World Championship in Cape Town next month.

In this trial, a player receiving a red card can be replaced after 20 minutes — which happened to the Junior Boks against Australia this week.

The intention is to not unduly affect the integrity of a game because of the indiscretion of a single player. But this proposal comes with stricter sanctions under a revised on-field and off-field sanctions process.

The aim is to promote consistency and simplicity, making it easier for players and fans to navigate, while upholding player welfare.

Automatic sanctions, involving suspension for set periods, with no mitigation, will be issued for red-card offences. Where a player has attempted to make a legal tackle, but was due a red card anyway, they will receive a two-week suspension.

If the red card is issued for an illegal tackle such as a spear tackle, or shoulder charge, a four-week ban is automatically applied. Mitigation will only be considered if there is an appeal.

In another closed trial, teams in the U20 World Championships and other World Rugby competitions such as the Pacific Nations Cup and WXV will have 30 seconds to set scrums and line-outs. The shot clock for a conversion will be reduced from 90 seconds to 60.

The other closed trials are:

  • Protection of the scrumhalf at the base of the scrum, ruck and at the maul following successful trials in Major League Rugby in the US and elite and community competitions in New Zealand. The scrumhalf will not be able to be played while the ball is still near a tackle, ruck or maul, and the offside line at the scrum for the non-putting-in scrumhalf will be the middle of the tunnel.
  • The ability to mark the ball inside the 22m line from a restart, promoting attacking options.
  • The ball must be played after a maul has been stopped once, not twice.
  • Play on at a lineout if the ball is not thrown straight but only if the lineout is uncontested, aiding the flow of the game.

These trial laws came under discussion at the “Shape of the Game” conference in February. The results of the closed trial will be evaluated with a recommendation made to the World Rugby Council in November.

“This work is vital to ensuring that the on-field product is befitting of the opportunities that we have in front of us, a superb sport that is enjoyable to play and watch and helps attract a new generation to get into rugby,” the World Rugby chairperson, Sir Bill Beaumont said.

“Personally, I believe that the law amendments and suite of closed trials will add to the entertainment factor. As with all trials, we will comprehensively review their effectiveness and take feedback from across the game.

“The revised red card sanction process is such an example, and it is important that we trial, assess and make definitive decisions based on data and feedback.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Why don’t they reduce the scrums to a non-contested, stand-up-and-throw-the-ball-in fiasco, stop throw-ins (replace them with said ‘scrums’), reduce the number of players to thirteen-a-side and call the game ‘rugby league’?

    The NZRU and ARU have apparently wanted to do that for ages, because of their failing competition with league, so why waste any more time incrementally destroying rugby union and just do it.

    And for Beaumont to say “.. a superb sport that is enjoyable to play and watch and helps attract a new generation to get into rugby” is totally and utterly ridiculous. It’ll mean that a large number of kids, large, unskilled but enthusiastic now, WON’T be attracted to the game as the scrum will have been effectively removed.

  • John Patson says:

    Should rather have removed the ridiculous laws which allow penalties from scrums every time one side gets a push on…

    • Confucious Says says:

      I’m in favour of a new rule which dissallows backline players, and you have to scrum from the start until the other team is in its moer! WR is bending hard for someone/s who hates the Boks!

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    ” … then came the lawyers, then came the rules … ” Guess if you can’t beat ’em, change the rules.

  • Confucious Says says:

    The only thing faster than Kurt Lee Arendse, is World Rugby trying to punish the Boks. They absolutely hate us!
    Since there is no specific style or play that is stipulated in the rule book, all teams are free to win within the rules of the game. This utter bullish!t about attracting viewers through running rugby implies that there is is only one way to enjoy the game. It further implies that style is more important than winning! Or that winning is for the deserved and not, well, the winners. I love scrums. I absolutely love scrumming weaker opposition into the floor. Why can’t I have the rules changed in my favour? Boks will win regardless…

    • greg bothma says:

      rugby is a game of power and where does the power come from? the engine room.
      take the csrum out and you dont have rugby anymore

  • A Green says:

    There are better ways to improve the entertainment factor to appeal to a new generation that exclude law changes. Better fan engagement technologies like stats/animations can be used as an example. They can rather learn from rugby league than try to become them.

  • Grenville Wilson says:

    Re the following paragraph….”Imagine a scenario where two teams are scrumming and the referee penalises the attacking team’s scrumhalf for a skew feed…”. Please help me, has anyone reading this column seen a scrum feed that hasn’t been skew, or a skew feed that was penalized??? I am confused, or the journo who wrote this doesn’t watch rugby!

  • Jack Russell says:

    If the Five Nations had scummed us plat this rule change wouldn’t even have been contemplated; actually, they’d have found a way to have more scrums.
    I think they still see us as a nation of 3 million cheeky whites, now joined by a lot of disrespectful blacks, feel humiliated when we both don’t know our place, beat them in too many ways?
    You gotta larf. Except when they go woke, which is most of the time, or I hear of Lord Hain !!!

  • Tothe Point says:

    A mark is not a free kick. A free kick is awarded for a transgression. There is no transgression leading to a player marking the ball. In such a case the laws should never have allowed an option of a scrum

  • Nic Grobler says:

    Rugby has become such a “rule-game” since I played 60 years ago, I struggle to keep up with all the changes.

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