In 1823, William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball in his arms and ran with it. And for the next 156 years forwards have been trying to work out why. - Tasker Watkins VC, LJ.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Good ideas, bad ideas, dropped ideas.

The Irish parliament, the Dáíl, was dissolved yesterday. Given how the 30th Dáil performed, I doubt it will be missed.

But that doesn’t mean everything it did was bad; and some of the good ideas have fallen by the wayside with the dissolution of the Dáil. One of particular relevance to rugby is Part 3 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010.

The Bill itself is a bit of a jumble. But Part 3 is interesting, because it gives a defence to legal liabillity to, amongst others, those carrying out unpaid work in and connected to sport. Those volunteers would not have been liable for accidents caused by them unless they had been grossly negligent – a much, much higher threshold than the usual standard for imposing liability – or had wilfully disobeyed the instructions of the volunteer organisation concerned.

The reason I mention this in the context of rugby is, first and foremost, the scrum. The refereeing of the scrum at the moment is an absolute mess; and one of the main reasons is the idea of depowering the hit. There are other ways to do this, which we won’t discuss here, but the original idea of the crouch-touch-pause-engage sequence was to make it safer. The problem is, of course, that it has made things less stable, and worse.

It’s even worse when you go down the levels. The fear that players will be injured, and the fear that referees will be sued in that case, has led to the under-age scrummaging restrictions being brought into senior rugby below a certain grade. There will now be forwards who will go through the whole of their playing lives without ever participating in a full scrum.

This is a good example of what’s known as the chill effect. This is where a perceived risk of litigation leads to defensive changes in how an activity is carried out and regulated. Referees have been sued, successfully, for injuries caused in a collapsed scrum; but what may not be appreciated is just how unique those two cases – Smoldon and Evans – were on their facts. I have written elsewhere on the issue of negligence on the pitch, and discussed these cases in more detail there; but, simply, letting a game go on with 46 collapsed scrums, or letting someone who had never played prop play in the front row causing a collapse which injured the hooker was grossly negligent, in anyone’s terms. Even then, the Courts made it clear that these cases were not normal run-of-the-mill ones; as it was put in Evans, the threshold of liability is a high one. Perception, however, is the key; and the chill effect is apparent.

This is why Part 3 would have been of such benefit. Referees could have reffed the scrum properly, confident in the knowledge that as long as they used their common sense and followed the instructions on reffing the scrum, that they were safe; the knowledge of this, of course, being the key. It would, with an emphasis on the fact that everyone stepping onto a pitch to play rugby voluntarily assumes a fair bit of physical risk, have permitted proper, full scrummaging to have trickled its way back down the levels to some extent. It’s too good an idea to drop casually.

There was enough damage done by the last Dáíl. It seems daft that one of their few good ideas would be left drop. Hopefully, someone in the next Dáíl will pick up this ball and run with it.

Edit; and, the good news is; someone did. It's now Part 3 of THIS Act.

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