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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Rugby and the Infield Fly Rule?

I do not understand rugby well enough (really, at all) to fully analyze or deconstruct this play that has many people up in arms. But it raises the question of a limiting rule for that sport, a la the Infield Fly Rule in baseball.

As I understand it: When a player is tackled, the tackler must let go and move away from the tackled player, while the tackled player gives up possession by trying to play the ball back to his teammate. The players nearby will then try to stand over the ball to gain possession. When that happens, a "ruck" is formed; groups of players from both teams stand and push each other, trying to heel the ball back out of the ruck or allow a teammate to reach in and pull it out. When the ruck forms, teams must get onside, so everyone not in the ruck must be back and between the ruck and the goal they are defending.

In a game between England and Italy (video in link), Italy, for strategic reasons, never formed a ruck after tackling an English player. The Italian players backed away and let England keep possession. But this also meant that Italy's players did not have to get onside on the other side because there was no ruck--they could wait behind the ball, in the area to which an English ball carrier wanted to pass the ball (the ball only can be passed laterally or backwards in rugby). It took England a while to adjust to the strategy and allowed underdog Italy to stay in the game for awhile. At one point in the Deadspin video, an English player asks the referee what they should do and the ref responds that he is not the coach and they should figure it out. This is all lawful (there is not obligation to form a ruck), but the English coach complained that it is "not rugby."

But does it demand a limiting rule a la the Infield Fly? Based on my limited understanding of how rugby works, I think the answer is no.

First, Italy does appear to be acting contrary to ordinary athletic expectations within the game. Teams ordinarily want to form a ruck because that is the way to get the ball back and the only way to score points, which is the goal of the game.

But the second and third prongs suggest no special rule is necessary. This is not a one-sided, extraordinarily disparate cost-benefit exchange. Rather, both teams are gain something and surrender something on the play: England retains possession, although facing a confusing defensive situation; Italy surrenders possession, but keeps itself in a better defensive posture. Relatedly, England is not powerless to counter the strategy, as shown in the second half. Teams can find a way to get someone open to pass backward. Teams also can kick the ball forward, which they might be better able to do, since so many defenders are now behind the ball. Given the absence of these two prongs, this is not a situation, like the infield-fly, in which the equities of the game demand a rule change.

Instead, this seems to be another example (along with responses to hacking in the NBA) of an aesthetic concern--that deploying this strategy is not playing the game the "right way." Or not playing the game at all, if you believe England's coach that this is not rugby. Sports will enact rules to limit strategy for aesthetic reasons, even if not necessary to maintain cost-benefit balance and equity.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 28, 2017 at 02:01 PM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


"At one point in the Deadspin video, an English player asks the referee what they should do and the ref responds that he is not the coach and they should figure it out."

I think the captain (the only player allowed to address the referee) was initially asking why England's strategy of pulling an Italian player to the ground was not causing the ref to call a ruck. It seems the refs had been specifically told by World Rugby that a player being pulled by an opponent was not sufficient to cause a ruck. He was not really asking for strategy hints, more of an advisory opinion on what would constitute a ruck.

Posted by: Jr | Mar 5, 2017 5:58:41 AM

Gladwell would disagree with you on the free throw thing.


There aren't many who top Rick Barry's .900 free throw percentage, and he shot underhand (he was the league leader when he retired). Apparently, the physics are on Barry's side, too.

Posted by: Eric J. Miller | Mar 3, 2017 11:44:29 AM

Thanks for this, Eric. As I said, I do not know the game enough to know what all the counters would be.

I agree that aesthetics matter in sports and that this is a common reason for rules and rule changes, including the Infield Fly Rule, at leats in part (the rulemakers did not want infielders running around intentionally dropping easy balls). My point is that it is a different reason than the cost-benefit balance that motivates something like the IFR. (Baseball does not mind all intentional non-catches, which is why an infielder can do it with a runner on first only).

The underhand free throw thing always struck me as a red herring. It's not inherently more accurate. Steph Curry does not become a better free throw shooter by shooting underhand. His % would likely drop, at least initially, because shooting that way is so different. At best, it is a style of shooting that might work better for big men, whose hands are often too big to hold the properly for a proper shot. But there is no reason to believe shooting underhand would have made him a better shooter.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 2, 2017 2:01:44 PM

I am a rugby fan and former player (though not very well). It's interesting that the English did not know the rule. Whenever we couldn't play due to a frozen field (rarely) we would spend our time sitting in a hall going over the offside rule (this is one part of it). The simple way to counter would have been to have three large forwards take the ball forwards from the back heel of the non-ruck tackle, and basically pound the ball down the Italian throat. The fact that it took the English so long to come up with this is more an indictment on them than on the Italians: ironically, it's this sort of (sometimes regarded as dull) pounding game that the English are known for. Fancy passing among the backs is a "French" trait.

You might want to consider that when the N.E. Patriots tried the same thing against the Baltimore Ravens, the Ravens coaches did not know the rule, the referees acted the same way as the rugby ones, but the NFL changed the rules. Aesthetics do matter in sports. Gladwell has some stuff on why players won't shoot free throws underhand (much more accurate) and why teams don't run full court presses, even though bad teams can win consistently doing this. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/05/11/how-david-beats-goliath

Posted by: Eric J. Miller | Mar 2, 2017 1:46:44 PM

I saw this story on Deadspon and immediately thought of you and your Infield Fly Rule model (or was it a test?). I agree, the analogy to hacking in the NBA is apt.

Posted by: Alex Pearl | Feb 28, 2017 3:36:41 PM

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