Last night’s crucial Premiership match between Bath and Northampton Saints at the Recreational Ground in Bath – depending upon who had won – could have either secured Bath a play-off finish or the Saints a home semi-final. In the event, with me watching live on BT Sport, it did neither by ending in a 19-19 draw. Now the regular Premiership season will go down to the wire with its final games next weekend.
Amidst the frenetic action, as these two in-form sides fought themselves to a standstill, there was a noteworthy – not to say extraordinary – episode of rule-book consultation by the referee Matt Carley and last night’s fourth official Wayne Barnes. To be totally accurate, if not pedantic about it, that statement is not strictly correct – I don’t think either of them actually consulted the rule book, they simply discussed the situation and came to an answer using their own knowledge and understanding of the laws of rugby union.
Here’s what happened.
Midway through the first half the Bath hooker Rob Webber had to leave the field after suffering what looked like an horrendous leg injury in making a tackle. He was replaced by Ross Batty, coming off the bench.
Much later, during the second half, Batty then also had to leave the field with a shoulder/arm injury.
Thus arose the ‘issue’.
The current rules are that each team’s match day squad of 23 must include like-for-like front-row replacements. For safety reasons, it was decided some time ago that only front row players can play in the front row because – by shape, size and training – it was felt only they are able to withstand the enormous pressures endured at the sharp end of modern scrums.
If, after a like-for-like substitution, the replacement tight-head prop is also subsequently injured and has to leave the field, the rule is that the referee must announce that – until the conclusion of the match – thereafter the scums must be uncontested. In other words, although scrums continue to take place, no pushing is allowed by either side and, effectively, the scrum simply becomes a vehicle via which the side given the put-in automatically gains possession of the ball as play restarts.
This can be frustrating for the team (and indeed its supporters) whose front row remains complete and fit, especially if – prior to the retirement of the opposition’s relevant front row player that caused the referee to impose ‘uncontested scrums’ – they were winning the forwards’ battle.
But to return to the situation last night.
With Bath having lost both their match 23 hookers to injury – and uncontested scrums therefore inevitable – another issue arose.
The rule is that front row specialisations are enforced – i.e. only a tight-head prop may replace a tight-head prop and only a loose-head prop may replace a loose-head prop.
Last night, when Bath lost their back-up hooker, they still had a spare prop on their bench (Nathan Catt), but no third hooker.
Referee Carley consulted with fourth official Wayne Barnes and they agreed the position under the rules. Since Bath, albeit inadvertently, had caused referee Carney to impose ‘uncontested scrums’ from this point … and could not bring on a hooker to replace their most-recently injured one … they would now have to play with 14 men. It would make no difference to the uncontested scrums from the health and safety perspective (because by definition they would be uncontested) but, under the rules, there was nothing else for it – Bath would have to play one man short.
The Bath coaching staff were naturally bemused and upset. It wasn’t their fault that both their hookers had been injured. Furthermore, their unused prop Nathan Catt – a young, promising and very solid citizen – in practice was more than capable of filling in as a makeshift hooker if necessary. Why could he not go on? To play the last fifteen minutes or so of such a vital match with only 14 men would give Northampton an unfair advantage.
That might be so, the referee and fourth official pointed out, but the rules were the rules: only a hooker could replace a hooker and – Bath not having another hooker on their bench – they weren’t entitled to replace their hooker with a prop, however large and deserving he might be.
After several minutes of toing and froing on the sidelines, a compromise suddenly emerged. Viewers were surprised to see Nathan Catt run out onto the pitch and be asked by referee Carley “Are you saying you are prepared to play as a hooker?”
“Yes, sir” came the reply.
Thus Nathan Catt duly joined the Bath front row as hooker and the game continued, but with contested scrums.
From Bath’s perspective – and probably the game’s, as a spectacle – this was a win because it allowed Bath to finish with 15 players on the pitch.
However, as the BT commentators Nick Mullins and Austin Healey pointed out, in a technical sense, this was the wrong decision under the laws of rugby. As regards front row substitutions, every replacement that comes onto the pitch must be a specialist in his own position, and his own position only. If there is no specialist replacement available to come on, the team requiring the replacement in an ‘uncontested scrums’ situation must play with 14 men. Usually this happens by the team concerned choosing to dispense with one of its loose forwards, or alternatively a back.
Last night, by being permitted to bring on a replacement prop to play as a replacement hooker, Bath were able to ‘bend’ the rules and keep 15 men on the pitch.
To be honest with you, from a rugby entertainment point of view this probably made sense because it avoided the rugby ‘travesty’ of having uncontested scrums. In days gone by, any front rower could replace any other front rower, so uncontested scrums very rarely happened – but in 2014 the watchword is ‘safety’, hence the rules.
This is speculation on my part, but it also probably made no different to the outcome, or even perhaps improved it. For, as it happens – on the balance of play – a 19-19 draw was probably a fair result.