The Offside Law and Me

This is a curious article and one that associates itself with the minutiae and ridiculousness of rugby laws. It’s a little bit geeky, so I’ll understand if you don’t want to stick around. There’s Wimbledon, Donald Trump Jr, Love Island, mince on toast. We live in ample times. I won’t hold it against you.

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I don’t want to pick over the bones of the Lions Tour much more. Many have spoken. It was a feast and a half. It promised a lot and in the end, it delivered. Added extras were thrown in; clowns, unwanted tourists, disrespectful media, and a big fat juicy red card. And that was all before the two sides scored fifteen points apiece in the final test and had to reluctantly smile and hold the trophy aloft together, with both teams aching for a few more minutes at each other’s throats.

The final moments of that third test were remarkable. Not least for the sociological intrigue. There was a number of minutes where people didn’t know what was going on. Hearts had leapt and stayed suspended in a rugby limbo. Roman Poite, the referee and sole arbiter, was busy looking at video replays and inventing arbitration. “So, we have a deal,” he said to the two captains who were utterly unaware of what agreement the Frenchman was talking about. Read looked perplexed, he’d been given a final shot at redemption, or so he thought. Maybe Poite was talking to himself, maybe the rugby gods. This would have been an invocation just and wise; some things are above your station.

Then there was classy Sam Warburton; in asking for clarification on the airborne clash between Kieran Read and Liam Williams, he was buying time. You see, that’s what you do when a man is out on a ledge. The longer he has to think about what he is going to do, the more likely he is to climb down. And so it played out. Warburton, the referee whisperer; such are the laws of our game, you could argue whatever decision Poite had come to, he’d have been wrong. Or right. Who in their right mind would be a referee?

But that is not what I want to talk about. Lost in amongst the furore was a happenstance on a rugby pitch that was very unusual. I’ve spoken to some very high profile officials since it happened, and they conclude they’ve not seen it take place before. So let me explain.

Earlier in the week, via twitter, I put forward some stills from the final restart, which Liam Williams spilled and Ken Owens gathered so contentiously. I did it mischievously, I’ll admit. After all, I was aware, whatever I was to prove, it meant nothing. But I am not one to walk away from a reeling All Black fan. I can’t resist a prod and a poke.

My point was this: the ball ‘looked’ as though it went backwards. From where Liam Williams lost control to where Ken Owens caught it, using the sponsors’ letters on the field as a guide, you could suggest it went backwards. Have a look at the below frames.

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Now whether the ball did go backwards, is not my point. Many a learned soul has talked about skewed lettering and camera angles. But let’s agree, so I can explain this curious incident, that the ball did go backwards.

I previously thought that if the ball goes backwards there is no offside line. You did too right? And in a way, we’re right. Because usually, anyone retreating back to retrieve a ball that has gone backwards, would put him or herself back onside. By the very laws of science and common sense, you would have to go back behind someone who has dropped or passed a ball backwards to get the ball. But, and here’s the nub of the issue, Kieran Read clatters Liam Williams in the air and, because of that enforced momentum, the Lions fullback recedes, back behind the ball. And as such, he is the offside line, not the ball. So Ken Owens, even if he catches a ball that has gone backwards, is still, intriguingly, offside.

I can’t think of a time on a rugby field where I would have seen this happen before. To illustrate my point let’s create a situation. A fullback collects a high ball and is the hind most player on the field. As he catches it, an opposition player tackles him and the ball is dropped backwards and comes to rest on the floor. But the momentum and legal drive of the tackler takes the fullback back beyond the ball by a good few yards. Now, as this law stands, any retreating defender (player on the fullback’s team) cannot pick up the ball without first retreating behind the felled fullback. I defy any rugby player not to pick up the loose ball in what many would refer to as open play. And I know most referees would let them do it (of course, they’ll say they wouldn’t, but you know what refs are like).

So amongst all of the gifts of that Lions Tour, and it was one of the most generous in recent memory, here is a truly remarkable example of the offside law. I can’t see it happening on a field anywhere near you soon, but hey, if it does, you can scream at your nearest official. I know, you are welcome.

And please don’t tell me that Kieran Read was offside at the restart: he wasn’t. He’s an All Black. They are never offside. Toodle-pip.

Sam Roberts © 2017. (Text only). All Rights Reserved

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