Rugby law verdicts: What is changing and how would it work?

Bundee Aki tackles Immanuel Feyi-Waboso - Rugby law verdicts: What is changing and how would it work?
Tackle height change will be just one of the initiatives considered by the working group - Getty Images/Adrian Dennis

World Rugby is considering lowering the tackle height in the elite game as well as a global trial of the 20-minute red card as part of a radical plan to speed up the sport and broaden its appeal.

The governing body will also examine reducing the number of replacements and reassess the use of television match officials.

Here’s our verdict on each of the key measures – let us know in your thoughts in the comments section below.

New red card plans

The 20-minute red card, sometimes known as an orange card, is potentially the most divisive of World Rugby’s proposals. A sent off player would not be allowed to return to the field but could be replaced after 20 minutes. At a time when rugby’s authorities are grappling with a concussion lawsuit, would downgrading the punishment for a high tackle undermine their messaging? At the same time, plenty of matches have been ruined by early and often accidental actions – see Freddie Steward in Dublin last year – and it has proved a popular measure since it has been introduced in the southern hemisphere.

Lower tackle height

Despite the mixed messages and initial uproar at the Rugby Football Union’s decision to lower the tackle height in community rugby below the sternum in 2023, World Rugby will establish a specialist working group to look at those trials in 11 unions to “consider appropriateness for elite rugby”. A year on the RFU’s trial has passed more successfully than was anticipated after some bungling messaging about lowering the height to the “waist and below” which caused a mutiny among members of the governing body’s council. Taking it to the elite game would be even more challenging given the already high number of cards for high tackles.

TV match official

Many people in the game will welcome World Rugby’s proposal to look at the “optimal remit” for the Television Match Official, via another specialist working group. The Six Nations showed several more examples of how the current system is flawed, from disallowing Sam Skinner’s perfectly good try in the Scotland v France game to TMO Ben Whitehouse intervening with Ben Earl’s no-arms tackle for France v England. Both decisions determined the result of those matches and inspired even more confusion about where the limits of the referee’s authority begins and the TMO’s ends.

End caterpillar rucks

Without doubt, ending the dreaded caterpillar rucks will be the most popular measure among supporters. While England’s defeat to France was a largely thrilling affair, home supporters rightly booed the eternity that Alex Mitchell was allowed to direct three forwards to attach themselves to the ruck, allowing him extra space to get his box kick away. Such elaborate set-ups may no longer be possible. Now referees will be encouraged to call “use it” much earlier, after which the attacking team has five seconds to get the ball away otherwise the defending team will be awarded a scrum.

Hookers need ‘full brake foot’

This is a proposal largely driven by players’ associations who have become aware of the dangers of “axial loading” where the combined power of a scrum, which can be up to 1,000 newtons of force, can centre on a hooker’s neck. To discourage hookers from driving their heads into their opponent’s shoulder on the bind phase, hookers must have one foot set forward during the engagement sequence of setting up a scrum. This seems an easy win as hookers have long complained that the previous system has led to degenerative neck injuries. The brake foot should aim both scrum stability and safety.

Clampdown on water carriers

Neil Jenkins and Rassie Erasmus, we are looking at you. Once upon a time, water might have been taken on by a medic or physio. Now a battalion of coaches are entering the field of play at every possible to opportunity to both pass on instructions to their team and, more insidiously, to intimidate officials.

The latest example came at the weekend when Jenkins, the Welsh kicking coach, complained to referee Mathieu Raynal about his failure to spot a high tackle. As Warren Gatland said of Erasmus during the 2021 Lions series, “if you’re the water boy running onto the pitch, you’ve got to make sure you’re carrying water.” Both the practice of coaches passing on instructions and abuse of referees should be eliminated.

‌Dupont law

Probably second to the caterpillar ruck in terms of unpopularity, Dupont’s law (or law 10.7b)i) to give its correct title) allows opposing players to be put onside by the a kick receiver either running five metres or passing the ball. This has led frequently to sustained bouts of tedious “kick tennis”. The most egregious examples came in the Scotland v France Six Nations and in the Premiership game between Bath and Gloucester, where the kicking battle lasted 68 long seconds.

If World Rugby passes a resolution at its council meeting in May then players can only be put onside by a team-mate coming from behind the kicker or the kicker themselves. This seems to have resolved the problem in its trial in Super Rugby Pacific. The vast majority of supporters would welcome this being implemented globally.


The vast majority of World Rugby’s recommendations or investigations propose some well-meaning solutions to some vexed problems. No one would mourn the death of caterpillar rucks or the interminable bouts of kick tennis. At elite level, rugby is an entertainment business and a lot of these proposed changes would seem to make the sport a more attractive proposition. The problem is the law of unintended consequences.

Rugby’s lawbook has become so dense and cluttered in recent years as laws pile upon laws seeking to rectify other laws. A case in point is that the problem of axial loading was a consequence of the “crouch, bind, set” scrum engagement sequence that World Rugby introduced in 2013 to remove the ‘hit’ element of the scrum.

Older readers will know how removing rucking introduced a host of other problems, including the crocodile roll that World Rugby are now trying to outlaw. The 20-minute red card may well make rugby a more entertaining sport but will it also encourage teams to revert to a more upright tackling style? And if the scrum option is removed from a free-kick at a scrum will that encourage weaker packs to go to ground?

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