14 Jun 2018
A humble knock-on - everybody knows what it is - or do they? And offside - everybody knows what it is and yet still gets hot under the collar about it.
They should be understood as they both concern ancient laws.
Knock-on dates back to 1866 and offside even earlier - 1846.
In 1846, the Rules of Rugby School said: A player is off his side if the ball has touched one of his side behind him.
A player being off his side is to consider himself out of the game, and is not to touch the ball or in any way to intercept the play.
(Note off his side - offside, not offsides, not even for a split personality.)
It's still, 172 years later, in its essence the same.
New Simplified Laws
Law 10.1 A player is offside in open play if that player is in front of a team-mate who is carrying the ball or who last played it. An offside player must not interfere with play.
Offside: A positional offence meaning a player can take no part in the game without being liable to sanction.
Now we are trying to sort out something concerning offside from a knock-on. It is not as simple as it may seem - being in front of a player of your team who last played the ball, who knocked on the ball in our cases. The two clips below suggest that the law may require a bit of analysis.
The first is taken at 31 minutes of the match between New Zealand and France. New Zealand are back in their own 22 and flyhalf Beauden Barrett boots the ball a long way downfield. Maxime Médard, the French fullback, dashes forward to catch the ball which bounces out of his arms and into the arms of left wing Rémy Grosso
The referee awards a scrum to France, where New Zealand seemed to expect a penalty and commentator says, with an air of infallibility: "It should have been a penalty, not a scrum."
In the second minute of the match between Australia and Ireland, Kurtley Beale of Australia kicks high. Israel Folau of Australia and Rob Kearney of Ireland's jump for the ball, both outstanding at this sort of skill, but neither catches and the ball falls to ground. Kearney pouts out a right hand towards the ball and plays it. Bundee Aki, in front of Kearney, i.e. nearer the Australian goal-line than his own, grabs the ball and is immediately grabbed by Australian players.
The referee penalises Aki, and Bernard Foley, Australia's flyhalf, goals to open the score.
Scrum in 1, penalty in 2.
Was the referee wrong in 1? in 2?
The business of playing the ball in front of a team-mate who had knocked on, was first addressed in 1948, and there it was decided that there should be "scrummage for the first offence - a knock-on". in 1956, that this was indeed a penalty for offside. In 1957, England proposed that there be a penalty only if the offside player prevented advantage. England's idea was not then accepted, but soon the law changed to read: When a player knocks on and an offside player of the same team next plays the ball, a penalty for offside should not be awarded unless the offside deprives the non-offending team of an advantage.
Over 50 years later, that still applies.
Offside after a knock-on
When a player knocks on and an offside team-mate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to sanction if playing the ball prevented an opponent from gaining an advantage.
Sanction: Penalty kick
The criteria for a penalty for offside at a knock-on are
1. The ball is knocked on - forward from hands.
2. A team-mate in front of the player who knocked on played the ball.
3. The team-mate prevented opponents from getting advantage
In the incident in Clip 1
1. Médard knocks on.
2. When Médard knocks on, Grosso is in front of Médard. Grosso catches the ball.
3. The nearest opponents are about 12 metres from where the knock-on occurred. Médard could himself have gathered the ball that he had knocked on. Other French players could have got to the ball before the New Zealanders. It is a long stretch of the imagination to suggest that Gros prevented the New Zealanders from gaining advantage.
When the ball came into Grosso's possession, Médard was already in front of Grosso. Grosso could then have been considered put onside.
The ball came straight from Médard to Grosso, who made no movement to get into position to play the ball. If his hands had been behind his back, the ball would still have struck him.
There is a case for accidental offside.
Law 10.5 A player is accidentally offside if the player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate who is carrying the ball. Only if the offending team gains an advantage should play stop.
It seems that the referee was right and that the commentator, expressing only a part of the truth, was wrong.
The second incident is different. When Aki picks up the ball, a good half a dozen Australian players are right there to play it, to take advantage from, Kearney's slight knock-on. In grabbing the ball Aki prevents them from seizing an opportunity for advantage, a really good opportunity for them to go rumbling forward with the ball.
This time it was a knock-on, the player played the ball deliberately and the opponents were denied advantage from the knock-on. The penalty is the right decision.
It seems that the referees were right on both occasions – and that the commentator, expressing only a part of the truth, was wrong in the French incident.