The 50:22 law was successfully trialled in the Southern Hemisphere

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World Rugby is set to introduce the 50:22 law into international rugby from August 1. The law amendment, which will be brought in alongside goal-line drop-outs, could drastically alter how Test match rugby is played.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the law will be introduced for 12 months into all domestic and international competitions around the world after a successful trial in Super Rugby AU and trans-Tasman Super Rugby competitions.

The 50:22 law sees a side throw into a lineout if they bounce the ball into touch beyond the opposition 22 from behind halfway or beyond halfway from behind their own 22. In its trial, it forced defending teams to drop a winger into the backfield to stop this occurring, thereby creating more space for the attacking side with ball in hand. Instances of a successful 50:22 were fairly rare, however.

Another possible law change, the 20-minute red card – which allows teams to replace a player sent off for foul play after 20 minutes – will not be implemented.

World Rugby have recognised that 50:22s, combined with the implementation of a goal-line drop-out rather than a scrum when the attacking team is held up over the try-line, have brought the added bonus of a more attractive and expansive spectacle. So, why is that?

Creating space

Governed by research showing that the tackle-area accounts for 50 per cent of injuries and 76 per cent of concussions, World Rugby’s introduction of the 50:22 primarily aimed to cause a reassessment of defensive techniques.

Crowded front-lines, comprising 13 or 14 players, have been in fashion for most of the past decade with two or even one man covering the back-field. Scott Sneddon is the attack coach for South China Tigers, Global Rapid Rugby’s Hong Kong-based team.

He says that the 50:22, which was trialled in 2020 and adapted from the 40:22 law in play the previous season, caused an immediate rethink. Global Rapid Rugby 2020 only got through a single round, on March 14, before a coronavirus suspension. Even so, Sneddon noticed patterns.

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During their 52-27 victory over Manuma Samoa in March last year, South China Tigers amended their defensive formation.

“We were still seeing sides defending with a back two,” explains Sneddon, a Welshman who moved to Hong Kong after a spell as a player-coach at Rosslyn Park.

“But they were going slightly wider, leaving the middle of the field completely open. A lot of teams play with a back two. Depending where you are on the field, they will be close to the 15-metre lines. Now they’re sitting 10 or five metres from the touchline.

“That gives you a load of space down the middle of the park. We didn’t think we could allow opponents that much space, so we trialled having our nine almost halfway back in the middle of the field with our back two sitting almost 10 metres from an edge.

South China Tigers' original defensive system

“Scrum-halves will usually stand in the line and be a shooting threat or even just an extra number filling in at guard. We trialled it that maybe he could stand in on a ‘half’ – as a winger might do but in the middle of the field. He would be in a position to cover the back-field down the middle if needed, if he saw the opposition 10 drop into the pocket. If there were any chips or dinks, he would still have the ability to work in behind.

South China Tigers' new defensive system

“We caught Samoa long down the middle of the field a few times and they didn’t catch us once. This may have been down to our scrum-half putting them off the long midfield exit. Samoa tried a couple of kicks to compete, our scrum-half managed to cover up any high balls in that area. With the extra man on a half we felt quite comfortable because it gave us an additional man to work with our kick-counter.”

This illustrates how South China Tigers altered their defensive set-up in open play, moving from a 13-2 formation to a 12-3 or ‘12-2½’:

South China defence

Ian Prior, a versatile half-back who has represented Western Force in 2019 and 2020 Rapid Rugby tournaments as well as the 2019 NRC, goes further.

“On the defensive side, you have to be wary of it,” he says, before outlining another layer of deception. “But you can also lure the other team into [kicking] if you play quite shallow with two at the back. Then it becomes a bit of a race to see who can execute their skills better.”

Essentially, the cat-and-mouse relationship between kicking and back-field coverage, which often sees wide passing to coax defending wings up from deep positions and manipulate space in behind, remains. Only the stakes are higher.

“The kick can give you a 60-metre net gain and it’s your ball, too,” adds Prior, who notched up a number of 50:22s in a victorious 2019 NRC campaign for the Force. A strong driving maul was one of their chief weapons.

“A lineout in the opposition 22 can be a game-changer in terms of momentum. I think it’s a great rule. Even if it’s one defender you take out, it still opens up a great deal of options.”

In breathless Rapid Rugby, which does not allow the ball to be kicked out on the full at all, the significance of a 50:22 is mitigated by another quirky law. Attacks that begin behind a team’s own 22 and travel all the way up to the opposing try-line can yield nine-point tries. Under regular laws, even without that bonus, Sneddon predicts a fascinating trade-off.

“If they have two in the tackle and two and a half in the back-field, there is going to be space. From the point of view of an attack coach, it would promote playing to that space a little more.

“From a defensive point of view, coaches will still say: ‘Right, if they want to run it back, let’s kick and put the emphasis on our chase and keep them back there’.”

When are 50:22s happening?

Last year, South China Tigers’ playmakers sat down to theorise about 50:22s. Turnover ball was the first area they identified as a chance for game-changing strikes. “It’s a 50:22 but also a 22:50,” says Sneddon.

Remarkably, Anthony Bouthier’s booming spiral against England at the Stade de France in the 2020 Six Nations would have qualified for a 50:22 and a 22:50. Following a strong jackal from Cyril Baille over the top of Kyle Sinckler and an alert pass off the floor from Julien Marchand to his full-back, France would have ended this sequence with a lineout:

Ironically, England are usually extremely effective themselves when kicking in these transition situations. Take this try, set up by Owen Farrell and scored by Jonny May against Wales in 2018…

…or this one against France a year later. Just 14 seconds span between Tom Curry and Courtney Lawes forcing a tackle-turnover and May dotting down from Elliot Daly’s grubber:

Yet another similar finish from May arrived at Rugby World Cup 2019. Henry Slade sets it up:

All of these kicks came beyond the halfway line. However, the second two may have come from further back – and have been aimed towards the touchline for the safety net of a throw into the lineout in case May did not reach it – under 50:22 regulations.

Scrums were also brought up in South China Tigers’ meeting. In the middle of the field, deploying a kicker at first-receiver on either side of a set piece can cause serious headaches. Prior has accomplished a 50:22 for Force after shuffling away from his number eight and receiving a pass from the base. 

“With a four-two defensive set-up, you often need a full-back to cover the whole field, unless they go with two back – and if they do that there are obviously opportunities to get gain-line success there.”

He has more ideas concerning phase-play.

“The other option from scrum-half was to go against the grain with a ‘toppy’, when the ball bounces and gets a bit of a roll after their wing has come up a bit early and becomes disconnected from their full-back.”

South China Tigers did not manage any 50:22s against Manuma Samoa. They could, and perhaps should, have had three. This was one passage from which they might have capitalised.

It begins as Manuma Samoa clear from their own 22:

South China Tigers gather and run the ball back:

Their counter is initially stopped just before halfway, meaning a 50:22 is in play on the next phase over towards the far touchline, Manuma Samoa’s back-field coverage is slightly confused and shallow.

South China Tigers identify this, so after a flat first-receiver steps up…

…a swivel-pass gives a playmaker time:

The kick aims to find space and bounce into touch beyond the 22…

…but is mis-hit and stays in-field:

When the 50:22 comes to northern hemisphere club rugby and to Test matches, these exchanges, which punctuate just about every professional match in the modern era, will be revolutionised.

Match images courtesy of BBC and ITV

  • A version of this analysis was first published in 2020