Rugby World Cup 2015: Does selecting only two hookers cause unjustified risk?
In the lead up to the upcoming 2015 Rugby World Cup (‘RWC 2015’) starting this Friday 18th September, there have been many sports law related issues at the top of the agenda for the game’s governing body, World Rugby, to consider and put the appropriate regulations and procedures in place including player welfare and safety (particularly concussion),1 and the use of new technology2 to assist referees with the identification of infringements of the Laws of the Game of Rugby Union3 (‘the Laws’) during the match (in addition to the Television Match Official that they already have at their disposal).
However, as a qualified and active rugby union referee, the regulatory story that caught this author’s attention was when two of the top ranked nations, Australia and Wales, announced that there were only two specialist hookers selected in their squad of 31 players.4 In doing so, the coaches of each team and the national union are - this blog will argue - taking significant risks both with the sporting and civil law, that are contrary to the general drive in the game to have a heightened awareness of player safety issues and the protection of player welfare.
To begin with, for those not familiar with the game of rugby union, the hooker is a very specialist position and is, per ESPN’s description, “the front row forward wearing No. 2 shirt. The player is supported on either side in the scrum by props [one loose head prop on his left and one tight head prop on his right] and is required to gain possession of the ball in the scrum by hooking or blocking the ball with one of his/her feet. The hooker will normally also be the forward who throws the ball into the lineout.”5 All of the pressure in the scrum goes through the bodies of the front row forwards, the hooker and two props, in particular through their head and necks, which is why measures to ensure their safety in rugby union regulations are paramount.
The regulation of the safety of the hooker is to be found in the following rugby union sports ‘laws’:
- Laws of the Game of Rugby Union6 - Law 3.5, The front row, replacements and substitutions – In a match day squad of 23 players (the number allowed for International Matches) there must be at least 6 “suitably trained and experienced players” who can play in the front row and on the first occasion that a replacement hooker is required the team can continue to play safely with contested scrums [Laws 3.5(a) and (e)]. Where there are not sufficient “suitably trained and experiences players” to play in the front row, following one of those on the field having been injured, sin binned or sent off, the referee may order uncontested scrums for the necessary period of time for reasons of safety. [Law 3.5(l)].
- World Rugby Handbook7 – Regulation 15, International Matches – In any International Match two specialist front row Players are required to be selected by each Union as replacements/substitutes. [Reg 15.1.1]
- 2015 Rugby World Cup Tournament Rules8 – Rule 1.1.7, Compliance with Law 3.5 - In terms of the provision of front row players to comply with Law 3.5, the necessary number of reserve front row players must be included in the Tournament Team [31 player squad] to cover last minute injuries to front row players selected in the Match Team [23 player squad] within the 48 hour replacement timeframe.
Although it has not been formally confirmed, it is assumed that both the Welsh and Australian coaches will name one of their props as a “suitably trained and experienced player” to play hooker if required, as this is the responsibility of the team and not the referee on the day [Law 3.5(m)].
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Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.