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Tuesday, February 28, 2017
 
Rugby and the Infield Fly Rule

I do not understand rugby well enough (really, at all) to fully analyze or deconstruct this play that has many people up in arms. But it raises the question of a limiting rule for that sport, a la the Infield Fly Rule in baseball.

As I understand it: When a player is tackled, the tackler must let go and move away from the tackled player, while the tackled player gives up possession by trying to play the ball back to his teammate. The players nearby will then try to stand over the ball to gain possession. When that happens, a "ruck" is formed; groups of players from both teams stand and push each other, trying to heel the ball back out of the ruck or allow a teammate to reach in and pull it out. When the ruck forms, teams must get onside, so everyone not in the ruck must be back and between the ruck and the goal they are defending.

In a game between England and Italy (video in link), Italy, for strategic reasons, never formed a ruck after tackling an English player. The Italian players backed away and let England keep possession. But this also meant that Italy's players did not have to get onside on the other side because there was no ruck--they could wait behind the ball, in the area to which an English ball carrier wanted to pass the ball (the ball only can be passed laterally or backwards in rugby). It took England a while to adjust to the strategy and allowed underdog Italy to stay in the game for awhile. At one point in the Deadspin video, an English player asks the referee what they should do and the ref responds that he is not the coach and they should figure it out. This is all lawful (there is not obligation to form a ruck), but the English coach complained that it is "not rugby."

But does it demand a limiting rule a la the Infield Fly? Based on my limited understanding of how rugby works, I think the answer is no.

First, Italy does appear to be acting contrary to ordinary athletic expectations within the game. Teams ordinarily want to form a ruck because that is the way to get the ball back and the only way to score points, which is the goal of the game.

But the second and third prongs suggest no special rule is necessary. This is not a one-sided, extraordinarily disparate cost-benefit exchange. Rather, both teams are gain something and surrender something on the play: England retains possession, although facing a confusing defensive situation; Italy surrenders possession, but keeps itself in a better defensive posture. Relatedly, England is not powerless to counter the strategy, as shown in the second half. Teams can find a way to get someone open to pass backward. Teams also can kick the ball forward, which they might be better able to do, since so many defenders are now behind the ball. Given the absence of these two prongs, this is not a situation, like the infield-fly, in which the equities of the game demand a rule change.

Instead, this seems to be another example (along with responses to hacking in the NBA) of an aesthetic concern--that deploying this strategy is not playing the game the "right way." Or not playing the game at all, if you believe England's coach that this is not rugby. Sports will enact rules to limit strategy for aesthetic reasons, even if not necessary to maintain cost-benefit balance and equity.





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