3 Apr

The Law on McCaw
by Tracey Nelson
3 Apr 2006

There has been much talk bandied about in the past few weeks of Super 14 rugby, even stretching back to the All Blacks’ end of year tour to the UK in 2005, about Richie McCaw’s exploits at the breakdown. This reached a head on Saturday night when Hurricanes’ coach Colin Cooper queried the 12:4 penalty count against the Crusaders in his team’s 20-11 loss at the Cake Tin, claiming that the majority were given away at rucks. According to Cooper, the Hurricanes’ game is about ‘quick ball’ and his suggestion was that the Crusaders had illegally slowed the ball down at the breakdown and that the main culprit was McCaw. The media immediately jumped on this bandwagon and suddenly there were claims that McCaw had conceded five penalties and so why hadn’t he been sinbinned?

If we take a quick look at the penalties the Crusaders conceded perhaps we’ll see why (and please note there were only 11 conceded, not the 12 suggested in media-land):

6 min: TH prop Johnstone for going in on the angle in the scrum
11min: Tuiali’i for attempting to play the ball off his feet at the tackle
15 min: hands in the ruck, possibly Ellis on the ground
25 min: McCaw going off feet at the tackle
39 min: Tuiali’i for obstructing the kicker chasing through
44 min: Filipo for holding on in the tackle
48 min: Thorne for not remaining bound on the scrum
56 min: McCaw for playing the ball on the ground
58 min: Crockett for going in on the angle in the scrum
64 min: Tuiali’i for a high tackle
72 min: Leo’o for entering a ruck from the side

So the Crusaders only conceded five penalties at the breakdown (tackle/ruck), and at least two of those instances was when they were the attacking team – so hardly slowing down the opposition’s attack? The Hurricanes were only penalised three times in the entire game, although one could be justified in asking referee Paul Honiss why he only saw fit to warn Nonu for a shoulder charge/obstruction following a Crusaders kick-and-chase having penalised Tuiali’i for the exact same misdemeanour earlier, not to mention letting a couple of Hurricanes high shots go un-noted.

McCaw himself only conceded two penalties in the game, one at 25 minutes when he went off his feet at the tackle and the other at the 56 minutes where he was penalised for playing the ball on the ground. Both penalties were justified and McCaw would be the first to concede he was in the wrong in both instances. He was also a secondary offender at two other Crusader penalties – the first being when Filipo was penalised for holding on in the tackle (McCaw also came into the ruck from the side after the referee had indicated Filipo was about to be penalised), the second being when Leo’o was penalised for entering a ruck from the side (McCaw was also then cautioned for holding on to the ball).

So is McCaw indeed the cheat that opposition coaches and the media are claiming him to be? Is there any substance to suggestions that referees are giving him preferential treatment at tackle and ruck situations because of who he is? In my opinion too many people are automatically making the assumption that McCaw is the player being penalised when a tackle/ruck penalty is awarded. Referees are very specific as to who they are penalising when they give a penalty, so I would suggest that people try taking the time to listen before leaping to conclusions. Perhaps it’s also time a few people conceded that perhaps they don’t know the laws as well as McCaw and the referees do, because while McCaw (and all decent opensiders) play to the edge of the laws he does get penalised when he oversteps the line. The fact that Honiss saw fit to give McCaw a warning after just two penalties against him almost suggests that he was ruling heavily against him as opposed to favouring him.

More importantly, if Colin Cooper and any other coaches have concerns about the Crusaders slowing down ball at rucks perhaps they would be better employed at ensuring their own loose forwards get the breakdown and clear out the opposition as fast and efficiently as the Crusaders trio do. Afterall, nobody can slow your ruck ball down if you get numbers to the breakdown.