Focus on offside rule will be huge benefit for Super Rugby AU if it’s maintained all season

The general feeling emanating through online forums and social media over the weekend was that Super Rugby AU served up two mostly enjoyable games to kick off the 2021 season.

The major reason for the positive vibes about opening night was the speed that both the Queensland-New South Wales game in Brisbane and the Western Force-Brumbies clash in Perth were played.

As soon as any team got their hands on the ball, especially in the attacking half, you could feel the tempo and the intensity lift.

Teams wanted to attack with the ball, and much of that desire to play came from the deliberate focus we will see in 2021 on the enforcement of the offside line for the defending team.

For reference, the offside line for the defending team is covered by Law 15.4 — Offside at a ruck:

“Each team has an offside line that runs parallel to the goal line through the hindmost point of any ruck participant. If that point is on or behind the goal line, the offside line for that team is the goal line.”


To say the enforcement of that line formed by the hindmost point of any defending player in the ruck has been a bit contentious in recent years is a massive understatement as far as rugby officiating goes.

Liberal interpretations by defending teams — and defence coaches especially — have essentially got to the point where that supposed hindmost line has become the starting point for defenders.

Defenders have basically lined up alongside that last player in the ruck and gone from there. For the tallest of players, a back foot on that hindmost line puts the defender the best part of a metre closer to the attacking team.

The difference in 2021 was touched on by the television commentators over the weekend, with the explanation from referees now being that unless the players can clearly show that they have definitely started behind (not on) the offside line, the working assumption from the whistle-blowers will be that defender is offside.

And from what we saw over the weekend, they weren’t afraid to blow up the penalty either.

“Yeah, it did seem like there were more offside penalties,” seemed to be the view of many.

In fact, there were a lot more.

Rugby Australia and SANZAAR’s statistical providers Opta Data confirmed to ABC Sport this week that the number of offside penalties blown over the weekend was a significant increase on the 2020 average for Super Rugby AU.

Offside figures a big increase from 2020

Both games last Friday saw seven penalties blown, just for offside infringements.

Now, seven of 30 penalties in total in Brisbane and 28 in Perth doesn’t sound like a lot, but on average there were only 2.1 offside penalties awarded per game in 2020.

When previously only five or maybe 10 per cent of penalties blown in a game were for offside at the ruck and suddenly it’s nearly one in four, that has to change behaviours on the field.

And it did have a huge impact on how teams defended. Caught on the back foot and defending their own line late in the first half against the Western Force in Perth, the Brumbies gave up successive offside penalties and were told plainly and simply by referee Graham Cooper: “The next one down here, someone’s going to the bin.”

The Brumbies got the message. They did lose James Slipper to a yellow card later in the game, but it wasn’t for being offside. They didn’t concede another offside penalty in their defensive 22 for the game.

The other point to note in this is there was much more interaction between the on-field referee, his two assistants on the touch lines, and the television match official upstairs regarding enforcement of the offside line.

The ARs on the sidelines were playing a more noticeable role in not just setting where the offside line was at the hindmost player in the ruck, but also ensuring defending players were clearly behind that line.

This is turn created more room for the attacking team, thus leading to an increase in attacking intensity and tempo that everyone noticed and loved.

The game can be played with more space and it doesn’t require an artificial construct like a five-metre rule (or 10 metres as in rugby league). It just needs Law 15.4 to be enforced properly.

Like we saw last season, when the new breakdown interpretations led to more penalties against the defending team for not clearing the ruck area quickly enough, teams do quickly learn to adapt.

They’ll concede a few penalties in a game to establish where the officials’ borderline is, and they’ll get on with it.

And in time, the number of offside penalties per game will go down. If there are still seven offside penalties a game being handed out by Round five, I’ll be mightily surprised at how slow our teams are to get the message.

This is going to be the challenge now for the referees. If they can maintain the focus on enforcing the offside line as we’ve seen in Round 1, then the game will remain as intriguing to watch as both games were last Friday night.

And with a general feeling of positivity around Australian rugby again, and especially with more eyeballs on each game via its new broadcast partner, the improvement of rugby as an entertainment product depends on it.

Super Rugby AU – Round 2

Friday: Queensland Reds vs Melbourne Rebels, Brisbane 7:45pm AEDT

Saturday: Brumbies vs New South Wales Waratahs, Canberra 7:45pm AEDT

Western Force have the bye.