18 Nov

Change the record
by Tracey Nelson
18 Nov 2008

Every year we seem to go through this – Open Season on Richie McCaw. Gripes and complaints about him being “a cheat” and that referees don’t penalise him enough. It’s usually from some jealous type who doesn’t have an openside flanker of McCaw’s quality, and almost always from someone who doesn’t quite have their heads around the laws of the game.

Somewhat surprisingly this time it’s from former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer, who has complained that referees are allowing McCaw to enter the breakdown illegally ‘We think he is allowed by referees to make his first point of entry at which he claims a shot at the opposition ball from the side rather than going in through what is called ‘the rear gate’. He then swings the rest of his body around so he finishes up in an illegal position, shutting off any opponent from getting the ball. Illegally, he has denied the opposition a shot at possession’.

At the risk of repeating myself ad-naseum (and I was sorely tempted to simply drag out an old article dating back to the 2006 S14), you need to understand the laws at the breakdown correctly before you start showing yourself up as a complete idiot by making such statements as Dwyer’s. I’ll start with this ‘swinging of the body’ claim.

Fact – Richie McCaw makes more tackles per game than any other rugby player on the current international stage. Therefore, he has more chances than other players to legally contest for the ball simply because as the tackler he has rights to play the ball before a ruck forms.

Fact – if you are the tackler, position-wise the single onus on you is to get back to your feet before you attempt to play the ball. McCaw as the tackler (that being the defending player who has gone to ground with the tackled player in the tackle) is quite entitled to get to his feet and play the ball in whatever direction his body happens to be facing in. He does not have to retire back ‘through the gate’ to play the ball as the tackler.

Fact – If he’s smart enough to present his back to the attacking team while he attempts to win the ball, then it just shows he knows the laws and uses them to his advantage. If he is on his feet, he is not in an ‘illegal position, shutting off any opponent from getting the ball’. It is up to the opposition to get numbers there, bind to McCaw and form a ruck thus denying him the opportunity to continue playing at the ball with his hands. Tough luck if your side isn’t fast enough to get there before he turns the ball over.

What McCaw is doing as a defender is completely above-board and legal. He does not get away with illegal play at the breakdown, as was demonstrated by the excellent refereeing of South African Mark Lawrence in the weekend. When McCaw wasn’t the tackler and entered the breakdown illegally by not coming through ‘the gate’, or it became a ruck and he continued to play the ball, Lawrence penalised him.

Dwyer went on further with his complaints about McCaw, suggesting that when teams had possession referees were allowing entry from the side as well. I’m struggling to think where Dwyer has seen this happen, because most referees are managing to police this fairly well and those who haven’t have been consistent in letting all players do the same and not giving McCaw or any other openside flanker special rights.

In a final serve to the IRB referees, Dwyer suggested that they are allowing McCaw to bend the laws saying ‘There seems to be some other directive to referees, which informs that none of the laws concerning entry and sealing off apply to Richie McCaw’. Whilst I share some of Dwyer’s frustration with the current international refereeing standards, I find his claims to be somewhat off the mark. Perhaps he should be looking in his own backyard at another world-class No 7 in the form of George Smith, who is arguably only second to McCaw when it comes to contesting the ball at the breakdown. Is he a cheat as well?

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