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12 consecutive kicks: watch the woeful passage that shows rugby's laws must change

Bath-Gloucester kick tennis
Even some of the players looked exasperated by the kicking exchange, which they could not interrupt because the laws protect the player who catches the ball

Blame Antoine Dupont. The pesky scrum-half was pivotal in popularising the ‘goal-hanging’ ploy a couple of years ago; perhaps encouraged by Jérôme Garcès, the World Cup final referee who is ensconced in France’s backroom team.

Whatever the inspiration for Dupont’s cunning trick, which takes advantage of law 10.7b)i) and regularly rushes opponents in the back-field during innocuous spells of kick-tennis, it spawned a bizarre passage of play during the West Country derby on Sunday. Rugby union can be partial to shooting itself in the foot and a 68-second segment of the meeting Bath and Gloucester at The Rec would have been confusing and infuriating for even the sport’s most passionate supporters.

During a stubborn rally instigated by Ben Spencer, the hosts adopted Dupont’s strategy en masse. It should be said that this is an impressive feat of coaching, because it is not easy to coordinate. Over the course of the exchange, which comprised 12 strikes, their players edged up the pitch. Those furthest forward, provided they began 10 metres away from the ball’s landing spot, were able to stand still and then burst into life once a Gloucester player had caught a kick and moved five metres. According to 10.7b)ii), a player can also spring to life from an offside position once an opposing catcher passes the ball.

Eventually, Bath wing Will Muir, surely in contention for England’s Six Nations squad given his excellent form this season, was able to scurry into the eye-line of Adam Hastings as the Gloucester fly-half struck a 12th consecutive kick. Unfortunately for Bath, the ricochet of a partial charge-down fell to Jonny May, who was played on-side and was able to run into open space. The inertia of the previous minute meant that teams had effectively switched ends save for their kickers. Suffice to say that most were glad when the rally was over and something more dynamic broke out.

Later on Sunday, as the clip of the 12-kick stand-off circulated around social media, Joe Marler decried a “bollocks” exchange. Jacques Nienaber also offered his view, hinting that these moments are the reason that people should be wary of ball-in-play statistics. Games with a high ball-in-play figure are often said to be more watchable. The ball was never out of play in this 68-second clip, yet it was unplayable while sailing through the Bath sky.

Now, France are happy to stay patient and engage teams in kick-tennis because they can instigate devastating counterattacks if and when opponents err with a poor clearance. Dupont seems to be given licence to goal-hang during these exchanges individually and unfurled the ploy against England in 2022 at Stade de France. He was actually penalised, with Jaco Peyper ruling that Dupont began to move towards Marcus Smith before the latter had travelled five metres.

During last year’s World Cup quarter-final, South Africa had an answer. They counteracted France’s long-kicking by calling for a scrum from a free-kick after Damian Willemse had caught a long clearance from Louis Bielle-Biarrey. In the semi-final against England, the Springboks reprised that clever tactical riposte.

Gloucester might have done the same to make Bath think twice. Then again, it is pretty punchy to voluntarily set up a scrum in one’s own 22. Others have suggested that both sides could have broken out of the kick-tennis by being bolder and keeping the ball in hand to pick chasers. Maybe this is where a little tweak in legislation could help.

There is logic to players being put onside when a catcher moves five metres. The clause is there so that a team is not unduly handicapped after the initial kicker is tackled or injured after striking the ball. Different facets of the kicking game, such as dastardly caterpillar rucks and players retreating to obstruct chasers and protect the catcher, could be officiated more stringently.

In this case, altering law 10 so that a player in an offside position must immediately retreat, rather than be allowed to stand still as an opponent catches the ball, feels like a reasonable fix. Until Mr Dupont figures out a way around that, too.

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