Disallowed ... Adam Ashley-Cooper celebrates his try that never was against the Force last week. Photo: Getty Images
I remember a training session with the Wallabies in Caloundra in 1998. Wayne Bennett had come along to observe. We were trying to expand our attacking prowess and had borrowed some ball-playing techniques that the rugby league boys had been using for quite some time. I'm talking about the second-man plays.
The session went according to plan and we got through what we thought were some reasonable attacking options. Satisfied, the coaching staff thanked Bennett for his time and walked from the field.
A few of the more inquisitive backs, however, stayed behind to talk to Bennett, making the most of a great opportunity to pick the brains of one of the best coaches in either rugby code. We asked him if we had been executing the plays correctly. In a very polite way, he said no. There were no egos among the players in taking the criticism – we wanted to soak up the advice being dished out by the then-Broncos coach.
After 20 minutes we were running lines similar to those we had started with but this time the purpose of where to run was refined. It was as simple as when you are running the short line, attack the outside shoulder of the defender in order to limit the chance of the defender sliding off onto the next attacker. Sounds simple but it works.
We were running too steep and therefore not posing a threat to the defender or being in a position to receive the ball. The second man should run a straighter line rather than a wide arc, running into the hole created by the first runner's decoy.
The reason I'm going into such detail about this is that there is still a limited understanding from the men with the whistle as to what the players are trying to achieve with the second-man play.
A case in point was Adam Ashley-Cooper's disallowed try for the Waratahs last week. Rob Horne ran a strong line, with the Force expecting another crash ball. The defender had already made the decision to commit to the tackle, while Ashley-Cooper had run a great line to score what should have been a try from a well-worked play. Instead, the referee called it back for obstruction because the defender had thrown his arms up in desperation, shouting: "SIR!"
The purpose of these plays, like anything in attack, is to force the defence to make a decision. This move has to be executed as close to the opposition line as possible if you are going to make the defender commit. That's when it's been done well. But the referees are blowing up the play, ruling obstruction from the attacker running the short line. I think this shows a lack of understanding from the men in the middle.
The onus should be on the referee and his assistants to look at the defender to see what decision he has made. A poor defender will have eyes only for the man coming on a hard line at him. A good attacking ball-player will look at his opponent's eyes before he passes. If he can see the defender looking at the short runner, he plays the ball behind. If the eyes are tracking to the behind runner, he passes short so the attacker can run past the inside shoulder of the defender.
There was a good example of a second-man play in the recent Wests Tigers-Manly game. It was a short ball to Adam Blair from Benji Marshall that fooled the defence – a classic case of the defender being forced to make a choice and taking the wrong option.
Perhaps the referees have to look at the play as it unfolds and assess the decision-making process rather than revert to law 22 subset 4b clause 3, because too often we are seeing good plays go unrewarded because of a lack of understanding by the referees and their assistants.
We have seen in the past couple of years that the scrum is becoming an area in which you have to have completed four-unit maths to work out the complexities of pushing. The area of attack is becoming perhaps, a three-unit study. As we sit in the stands praising the efforts of a team and the sleight of hand in attack, it is so frustrating when it is called back as obstruction.
It is difficult enough to break the defensive line when you sometimes have 12 men lined up across the pitch, to then have a play called back for no reason at all. So let's hand the benefit of the doubt to the attacking team rather than blow the penalty.