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2020 Law Changes

When the Betfred Super League resumes at Emerald Headingley on Sunday August 2, there will be a number of changes to the game on the field of play, which were recommended by the June meeting of the RFL’s Laws Committee*, and have since been approved by the RFL Board. 

Some of these changes are temporary, in specific response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the challenges of resuming the season in 2020. 

The majority are permanent. 

Below is a guide to the changes. 

*For members of the RFL’s Laws Committee, see the bottom of this page.

1 – THE REMOVAL OF SCRUMS

Explanation

This is a temporary measure, with a specific goal of reducing the risk of potential COVID-19 spread between large groups of players. This is to mitigate the risk posed to the viability of the rearranged fixture list for 2020. 

Although Rugby League is a game dominated by physical contact, scrums constitute a significant proportion of the prolonged close contacts that are regarded as the most serious threat of virus transmission. 

Whereas a one-on-one tackle around the legs would potentially not involve any prolonged face-to-face contact, a scrum is regarded by Public Health England as a microclimate – which, given the need for six players from each team to be in a small area for a prolonged period, would represent a considerable risk of virus transmission. 

(There would be 132 such contacts between the 12 players in a single scrum; and with an average of 12 scrums in each Betfred Super League fixture before the season was interrupted in March, that would represent more than 1,500 contacts in a match – not including scrum halves or match officials, who would also normally be in the scrum area). 

This would lead to a serious risk of numerous players having to quarantine for two weeks should a player who had been involved in these scrums subsequently test positive for Covid-19. 

The Laws Committee therefore agreed with a recommendation from the RFL’s Clinical Advisory Group that scrums should be suspended for the resumption of Rugby League in 2020. The proposal was then presented and explained to meetings of the Super League, Championship and League 1 clubs before being approved by the RFL Board. 

What will happen instead?

In agreeing to the recommendation to suspend scrums, the Laws Committee stressed that the alternative should recognise their role in providing a stoppage, and breaking up the pattern of the game.

The Shot Clock, that was introduced to the Betfred Super League and other competitions in 2019, to minimise the time taken by scrums and other stoppages, will therefore be used to ensure there is an equivalent stoppage even without the setting of a scrum. 

The scrum will be replaced by a handover of possession, resulting in a Play the Ball, from exactly where the scrum would have been formed (for example, the position where the ball was knocked on, or passed forward). 

But if the defending team are not in position when the attacking team are ready to resume with the Play the Ball, the Referee will call “Time Off” – the game clock will stop, but the Shot Clock will continue to run, and the defending team will have up to 30 seconds to get their markers in position ready to restart. 

As soon as they are in position, the near side Touch Judge will call “Ok to Go”, and the Referee will call “Shot Clock Off” – the game clock will restart, and play will resume. 

If one team is not ready to restart when the Shot Clock reaches 30 seconds (which will be indicated by a buzzer sounding), they will concede a full penalty. 

2 – NO HUDDLING

For the same reasons as above, teams have been instructed to modify their response to scoring tries, to minimise prolonged contact with resulting risk of virus transmission. 

The team scoring a try should limit hugging or hand-shakes and the team conceding a try should not huddle closely behind their own line as the conversion is attempted. 

This is not a law change, but an instruction that has been sent to all teams. 

It is temporary, and specific to the resumption of the 2020 season. 

3 – CHANGES TO 21-PLAYER SQUADS

Under an Operational Rule introduced for the 2020 season, clubs fielding a player in their match-day 17 who had not been included in their 21-player squad were penalised by the loss of one of their eight permitted interchanges. In recognition of the specific circumstances on the resumption of the 2020 season related to the Covid-19 pandemic, this change to the Operational Rules has been suspended – although with the intention of reintroducing it for 2021. 

4 - RESTARTING THE TACKLE COUNT (SIX AGAIN)

Explanation

The NRL made a significant change to the interpretations of the laws regarding ruck penalties when their season resumed on May 28. For an infringement of Section 11 (10)(a) of the International Laws of the Game “The tackled player shall be immediately released and shall not be touched until the ball is in play” – the referee now restarts the game by verbally and physically signalling “six again”, rather than awarding a penalty as previously. 

There are a number of exceptions to this, such as professional fouls, repeated infringements, or where play has broken down. A full penalty will be awarded in these instances, and for professional fouls or repeated infringements, the offending player will be sin-binned. For full details of this and all other changes, see the policy as sent to clubs.

The Laws Committee, meeting soon after the NRL restart, noted an immediate positive impact; also noted a desire to standardise interpretations between the NRL and Super League as much as possible, especially given the possible implications for International Rugby League; and further, considered the change would be likely to reduce the length of tackles, and the number of defenders committed to them – so would have a possible benefit in terms of players’ exposure to possible virus transmission, and therefore in mitigating the risk of disruption to the revised fixtures list (as with scrums, although on a much smaller scale, and without the hard data to confirm this). 

What will happen

As abovefor an infringement of Section 11 (10)(a) of the International Laws of the Game “The tackled player shall be immediately released and shall not be touched until the ball is in play” – the referee now restarts the game by verbally and physically signalling “six again”, rather than awarding a penalty as previously. 

"Six again" will be ruled for any defensive ruck infringement that in the past would have resulted in a penalty (e.g. Holding down, hand on the ball, crowding, leg pulls, markers not square , split early or stand too deep). 

The referee will signal this in the usual manner for restarting the tackle count – raising a clenched fist above the head, and waving from side to side. 

A Buzzer will also sound, to aid in communication with players and others at the ground.

5 - MUTUAL INFRINGEMENT

Explanation

Mutual infringements are rare – an occurrence during a match which is not infringement already provided for in the laws of the game, where play is irregularly affected, and fault cannot be attributed to either team. 

However they can be high-profile. 

The example highlighted in the Laws Committee Meeting is “when play is irregularly affected by the ball or the player carrying the ball coming into contact with the Referee, a Touch Judge, or with any person not taking part in the match or with any object which should not normally be on the playing field”; and “when any irregularity, not provided for in these Laws, occurs and one team unjustifiably gains an advantage”. 

Previously, this would have resulted in a scrum, with head and feed based on territorial advantage. But even before the temporary decision to remove scrums, the Laws Committee was due to consider adopting a change introduced in the NRL, in response to an incident in last year’s NRL Grand Final, meaning that play would be restarted instead with a repeat of the previous Play the Ball. 

What will happen now

Play will restart with a repeat of the previous Play the Ball (or penalty, drop-out, etc, where relevant – for full details click here

 

6 - KICK OUT ON THE FULL

Explanation

Previously, the game has been restarted with a scrum to be packed from where the ball was kicked. 

The Laws Committee was in favour of adopting the change introduced in the NRL, to resume instead with a handover from where the ball was kicked. This removes a further inconsistency between the games as played in each hemisphere – and also fits with the temporary decision to remove scrums. 

What happens now?

If a team kicks out on the full, the opposition will receive possession through a handover, at the point the ball was kicked (shot clocks will not apply to these situations).

7 - THIRD TACKLER IN

Explanation

There has been concern for a number of years of the danger of serious injury from a third defender tackling below the knee of a player in possession who is being held in an upright position. 

The NRL introduced a law change stipulating an automatic penalty for such an offence – stating that if a player in possession is held in an upright position by two defenders, any other defenders must make initial contact to the player in possession above the knees / knee joint. 

The Laws Committee accepted an RFL recommendation to adopt this change, again providing further consistency between the laws in each hemisphere. 

What will happen?

When a player in possession is held in an upright position by two defenders, any other defender[s] must make initial contact to the player in possession above the knees/knee joint.

Regardless of the point of impact, a player can still be penalised for any ‘forceful, dangerous or unnecessary contact’ at the legs that involves an unacceptable risk of injury to the player in possession.

This is an on-field change – such incidents could already, and have been, the subject of subsequent disciplinary action.

*Laws Committee

The RFL Laws Committee meeting on June 10 was attended by: 

Ralph Rimmer (RFL CEO - Chair) 

Steve Ganson (RFL Head of Match Officials) 

Dave Rotheram (RFL Chief On-Field Officer) 

Paul Sculthorpe (England Pathways Coach) 

Robert Elstone (Super League Executive Chair) 

Carl Hall (Doncaster CEO – League 1) 

Paul Harrison (Batley Chief Executive – Championship) 

Dr Gemma Phillips (RFL Clinical Advisory Group) 

Prof. Ben Jones (England Performance Unit Head of Performance) 

Garreth Carvell (GMB Players Union) 

Chris Chester (Wakefield Trinity Head Coach) 

Kris Radlinski (Wigan Warriors Rugby General Manager and Executive Director) 

Dave Woods (BBC RL Correspondent – Media) 

Matthew Barnes (RFL, Head of Legal) 

Emma Rosewarne (RFL Medical Co-Ordinator)