Scoring a try should be easy - all you do is put the ball down in the in-goal area. Right?
Grounding the ball to score a try in rugby – it sounds so easy. And yet…
We’ve all done it. We’ve all pointed at the TV and insisted that there – just there – is visual proof that a player on our team was first to get hands on the ball in the in-goal area and, therefore, a try was scored.
Or, we’ve insisted that images clearly showed a player on the opposition team wasn’t ‘in control’ of the ball at a try-scoring moment.
And, then, we’ve all howled in dismay as the referee gave what was, definitely, absolutely, the wrong decision.
The act of touching the ball to the ground in the in-goal area seems like it should be relatively straightforward. But, in a game of as many moving parts as rugby, it turns out that it is not that easy.
What is a try
First, what the law book says. Law 8.2 explains tries. It reads as follows:
A try is scored when an attacking player:
is first to ground the ball in the opponents’ in-goal;
is first to ground the ball when a scrum, ruck or maul reaches the goal line;
with the ball is tackled short of the goal line and the player’s momentum carries them in a continuous movement along the ground into the opponents’ in-goal, and the player is first to ground the ball;
is tackled near to the opponents’ goal line and the player immediately reaches out and grounds the ball;
who is in touch or touch-in-goal, grounds the ball in the opponents’ in-goal provided the player is not holding the ball.
Related: Why is a try called a try in rugby?
Grounding the ball
Law 21.1 explains what ‘grounding the ball’ means. It reads:
The ball can be grounded in in-goal:
by holding it and touching the ground with it; or,
by pressing down on it with a hand or hands, arm or arms, or the front of the player’s body from waist to neck.
Law 21.2 adds:
Picking up a ball is not grounding it. A player may pick up the ball in in-goal and ground it elsewhere in in-goal.
And Law 21.3 confirms:
An attacking player grounding the ball in in-goal scores a try.
Interpretation of the laws
So far, so simple, yes? And, yet, there are so many intepretations.
It is enough for a player to have a try-scoring portion of their body touching the ball when it makes contact with the ground. How many times have you seen a player chasing a kick through slam their hands down on the ball just before it goes over the dead ball line? Control? No. Try? Yes.
Here, former referee Nigel Owens explains, for example, why Louis Rees-Zammit’s touchdown against England in the first 2023 Rugby World Cup warm-up was disallowed. He talks about control, but explains what it means.
Referee Nic Berry ruled Rees-Zammit got hands to the ball, then lost ‘control’ of it – in that there was separation between ball and hand – then touched it again just after it had hit the floor.
At this point, the knock-on laws enter the game. A knock-on, as we all know occurs, “when a player loses ball possession, or contacts the ball with hand or arm, and the ball goes forward to touch the ground or another player before this player gains, or regains, possession. Forward means towards the opposing team’s goal line.”
Knock-on. No try.
Earlier the same day, referee Ben O’Keeffe had decided a Darcy Graham touchdown against France in Edinburgh was good, despite some concerns from TMO Ben Whitehouse about separation between ball and hand just before the key moment.
O’Keeffe focused on the grounding. Berry – in discussion with his TMO Joy Neville – focused on the moments before the grounding. Both reached different conclusions.
See? Scoring a try. Sounds easy. But that’s not always the case.
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