Rugby is a game about going forward but so are the passes – and that is the problem. It is an issue that is gaining momentum in both League and Union but it is momentum, in essence, that causes the confusion over the rule. A forward pass in both our rugby codes is against the rules whereas in 1906, American football allowed the forward pass based on safety concerns. At the time, the Chicago Tribune reported that in the previous year, 25 players had been killed and 159 seriously injured on the field of play. Theodore Roosevelt, the US President at the time had even threatened to ban the game were it not made safer.
You might think that judging a forward pass would be quite a simple matter. In Rugby Union, Law 12 states that Forward ‘means towards the opposing team’s dead-ball line’. However, this does not take account of Newton’s First Law of Motion that states that ‘every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force’. Allow me to clarify this. If you are travelling in a car at 20 km/h and throw a ball out behind you at 5km/h, then from your perspective, the ball is travelling away from you at 5km/h. If there was an observer on the side of the road, they would see the car go past them at 20 km/h and the ball go past at 15km/h.
Now imagine two players running at 5 m/s with the one holding the ball marginally ahead of the receiver. If it takes 1 second for the pass to travel through the air, in that time the receiver would have travelled 5 metres forward. So if the pass was ‘flat’, the ball would have travelled sideways relative to the receiver but 5 metres forward relative to the ground. When a pass is lobbed and is in the air for longer, it will travel even further forward. Throw in a tail wind and parallax error from an observer who is not exactly in line with the pass and we have further sources of confusion. If the passer of the ball is tackled just after he releases the ball and his momentum is suddenly stopped, the effect is exaggerated even more.
And that is the crux of the issue. What the players see, what the referee witnesses, what the crowd observes and indeed what is perceived on the television can all appear very differently. The referee has to make his ruling in a split second with no help allowed from the video ref in Rugby League’s ‘bunker’ although in Union a ruling can be made in a try scoring situation.
When all is said and done, the key to a backwards pass is whether it comes backwards out of the passer’s hand and even if it then goes forwards, it is still a ‘legal’ pass.
Maybe the best way of resolving the problem is by equating the passing of a rugby ball to a non-commutative mathematical operation, i.e., a forward backward pass is not the same as a backward forward pass.
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