We put your questions to Keith Lewis, World Rugby's laws coordinator, and founder of rugbyreferee.net


Ours is a sport with myriad different little nuances. And sometimes we get bushwhacked by the rugby laws. Remember when Italy had to go down to 13 players against Ireland because one hooker was red-carded? That took some explaining.

So we got some of your questions about the laws together and put them to Keith Lewis, World Rugby’s laws coordinator, and founder of rugbyreferee.net.

Here are your rugby laws questions and Keith’s response to them, below.

Rugby laws queries answered

Can you score a drop goal over your own posts? Like an own goal in football…

 Keith Lewis: No – there’s no provision for an own score of any type. If you did, you’d be giving away a 5m scrum if you did.

What are the laws for putting the ball into the scrum? Should the ball not be put down the centre? So why can scrum-halves roll it to their second-row without being punished?

 Keith Lewis: No, the ball doesn’t have to go down the middle any more. Since 2019, the 9 has been allowed to be offset to their own side of the tunnel – “Law 19.15. The scrum-half may align their shoulder on the middle line of the scrum” – thereby standing half a step to their own side.  But it should still be thrown straight from that position.

Temporary replacements are permanent unless the replaced player returns within 15 mins (blood) or 12 mins (HIA) in actual time (not playing time). If a player returns to pitch side before their 12/15 mins is up awaiting a dead ball in order to return, but there is no dead ball, does that make the replacement permanent even though they were cleared and ready to return in time?

 Keith Lewis: No, the law (3.27) says they just need to be “available to return to the field of play after 12 minutes (actual time)”. If they’re cleared and ready to return within the time, then they can do so when the ball is next dead.

“Any player who intentionally touches the ball in an attempt to prevent a penalty goal being scored is illegally touching the ball.” What is the sanction for this? Move the penalty forward 10m? Or is it a warning and then repeat infringement could be yellow?

 Keith Lewis: Law 8.27 says if the kick still goes through the posts, then the penalty still stands. If the kick is unsuccessful, the kickers team is awarded a penalty 10 metres in front of the original mark.

What are the laws regarding advantages for free-kicks and the rules for advantages regarding penalties? When does the advantage cease to exist?

 Keith Lewis: Advantage has always been left to the referee to determine. Law defines it as being either territorial or tactical, or a mix of both – but that it should be “clear and real”.  In reality a scrum advantage is that you have the ball when you didn’t ‘deserve’ it so advantage tends to be much shorter. If it’s a penalty offence, referees need to be sure that the tactical advantage (a kick for points) is outweighed by territorial advantage.

Against Italy when Ireland kicked from a penalty their hooker was already off the pitch in an offside position. If the ball fails to go to touch can they come back onto the pitch offside and play the ball or do they have to retreat?

 Keith Lewis: Law 6 says the referee needs to give permission for a player to leave or access the playing area. A player shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from being off the field and offside.

Why is more than one phase needed to score a drop goal after deciding to take a scrum from a free-kick? 

 Keith Lewis: Good question! Until 1977 you could only have a free-kick as a result of calling a mark. They then added in other technical offences but said you couldn’t “score a goal direct from a free-kick”. So it was different from a penalty goal.

At the time there was a concern that too many games were being won by penalties for minor technical offences. You could always have a scrum in lieu of the tap-and-go/kick. In 1992 they added, for clarity, that there needed to be a phase of play after a free-kick was taken after debates about what ‘direct from a free-kick’ meant. And for consistency, the same must apply from the tap, kick or scrum options.

When has the fly-half begun their run-up? is there anything specific in the laws to tell you when they can be charged down?

 Keith Lewis: Law 8.14 says that when a kicker moves in any direction to begin their kick, the defenders can begin a charge from the goal-line. This was clarified in a formal request from New Zealand Rugby in 2020 when kickers were stepping backwards or sidewards rather than towards the ball after they had set themselves.

That official clarification made clear that the “approach to kick” meant the next feet movement in any direction after a kicker has set themselves ready to kick.

“If the player is unable to take the free-kick within one minute, a scrum is awarded to the team in possession”. Why wouldn’t a player be unable to take the kick after the mark? Is this just to minimise time-wasting? Take the kick promptly or there’ll be a scrum in your 22?

 Keith Lewis: The only practical reason is if they get injured in catching the ball or as they land. It obviously happened once – probably when there were more of them. Until 1979, a mark could be called anywhere in a players own half, not the 22m as it is now.

If a penalty kick at goal goes straight out into touch, on the sidelines, what happens?

 Keith Lewis: This one has happened!

Either as a result of a strong wind or just a terrible kick! If it’s a genuine kick at goal, and it does end up going into touch, then a lineout takes place where the ball goes into touch, but the opposition throw the ball in.  What a team can’t do is say they are going for posts and then deliberately kick it to touch. That would result in a scrum to the opposition from where it was kicked.

With the Scotland example, why is the question to the TMO not more straight forward like Try yes or no? Why must there be an on field decision when the ref cannot give an accurate decision to the best of their ability?

TMO conversations have evolved over time. “Try, yes or no?” was used often until a few years ago, but the game wanted the referees to guide the decision if they could – they’re often in the best possible place in those situations, rather than leave it to static cameras which often become blocked by players, poor light or they can’t conclusively show the ball on/over the ball. So now, the referee gives their on-field view which then can be confirmed or otherwise if evidence is conclusive.

“Try, yes or no?” can still be used if the on-field officials have no idea (very rare). Even if that question was still used, it would have led to the same outcome in the Scotland case as, the TMO would still need to show 100% conclusive evidence that the try was scored (or not).

How long does a play have to ‘use it’ when instructed by a ref at the maul?

 Keith Lewis: Law 16.17 says the maul is unsuccessful (and so a scrum turnover)  when the “ball is available to be played, the referee has called ‘use it’ and it has not been played within five seconds of the call.”

How long can be spent with the ball at the edge of the ruck, when the ball is playable? 

 Keith Lewis: Law 15.17 says when the ball has been clearly won by a team at the ruck, and is available to be played, the referee calls “use it”, after which the ball must be played away from the ruck within five seconds.

How long can a caterpillar ruck be? Are there any rugby laws against blocking a defender from closing the kicker down as there seems to always be an attacking forward to stop the defender from doing so, is this not obstruction?

 Keith Lewis: A caterpillar ruck is just a ruck. There’s no limit to the number of players who can be in a ruck. But the referee should be calling “Use it” when the ball is won and available to be played. And then five seconds later it should be out. That limits the amount of people who can join a ruck in that space.

Can you charge down a free-kick, and if so when?

 Keith Lewis: Yes, you can. Law 20.16 says “As soon as the kicker initiates movement to kick, the opposing team may charge and try to prevent the free-kick being taken by tackling the kicker or to block the kick.”

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