Implemented in March 2020, the new breakdown law application guideline recently made its world debut in Super Rugby Aotearoa, closely followed by its Australian introduction in Super Rugby AU.

Developed by a specialist breakdown working group consisting of the global game’s leading players, coaches and referees, including Joe Schmidt, Richie Gray, Ian Foster, Victor Vito and Wayne Barnes, Jaco Peyper and Dr Eanna Flavey the guideline is a strict reinforcement of existing law designed to promote a safer, fairer contest at the breakdown that is easier to referee and enables faster, attacking rugby.

With Super Rugby Aotearoa wrapped up and rugby’s restart in neighbouring Australia now well underway, World Rugby has analysed the matches played so far across both competitions to find out if the new guideline has delivered on its goals.

Super Rugby Aotearoa enjoys faster ball

In New Zealand, teams and spectators enjoyed an increase in ruck speed, with average quick ball in the opposition half reducing to 2.76 seconds from 3.1 seconds in the previous season. This is significant because the evidence indicates that shorter breakdowns lead to fewer injuries.

The competition's combined penalty kick and free kick count dropped by nine – from 31 to 22 – across nine rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa. Consistent with the data from Australia, penalties at the breakdown also reduced from rounds one to nine of the tournament, from 20 to 13.

The drop in penalty count over time across both competitions shows a clear change in behaviour and an acceptance and understanding of the new breakdown law application guideline from players, coaches and referees.

The new guideline has also had a clear impact on the split of ruck penalties between attack and defence in New Zealand. The past average shows that attacking teams are penalised less at the breakdown, claiming 44 per cent of the total. Yet, across nine rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa this figure has risen to 51 per cent – evidence of a more equal competition at the breakdown.

Ball in play for longer in Super Rugby AU

In the opening six rounds of Super Rugby AU, the ball was in play for an average of 36 minutes 15 seconds – three minutes 42 seconds longer than the average time clocked by Australian Super Rugby teams in the previous season.

This increase in ball in play enabled an average of 40 more passes per game than previously recorded, showing an increase in free-flowing, attacking rugby.

Super Rugby AU has also recorded a clear change in how the game is being played at the breakdown. From rounds one to six, the number of penalties blown at the breakdown decreased from 13 to nine, with fewer penalties called for holding on than recorded in the previous season.

‘Fantastic for the game’

After its restart on 15 August, England’s Premiership Rugby is also now applying the new breakdown law application guideline. English referee and member of the specialist breakdown working group, Wayne Barnes, spoke on BT Sport to give his reaction to the introduction of the guideline and to share some insights from its development:

“This is the top coaches, the top players in the world saying, as part of a working group, this is how we can make the game safer, this is how we can make the game fairer, and this is how we can make it more understandable.

“This (the new guideline) was all about improving player safety. Players were bent over and their necks were exposed and they were just bracing until players arrived to clear them out. What we’re saying is we want them lifted, we want them higher, and we want players who arrive cleaning them out safely, driving them backwards. We want that ball in play. We want to encourage continuity.

“We’re seeing the players adapting, we’re seeing coaches adapting. They’re buying into what we’ve been asked to do. That’s fantastic for the game.”

In the time since the new guideline was announced, World Rugby has been working with referees, teams and unions to ensure full alignment and understanding of it.

World Rugby has also published comprehensive step-by-step guidance on the application of the new guideline, featuring detailed explanations and video examples.

Rugby World Cup 2011 final referee, Craig Joubert, has been educating emerging nations’ high performance staff and union referee managers and referees on the breakdown law application guideline via the newly-launched World Rugby Virtual High Performance Academy.

Read more: World Rugby issues breakdown law application guideline >>