Aussie Scott Johnson pushing for basketball-style ‘foul’ limits in rugby


Johnson recounted to the Herald the origins of his pitch for a 50:22 law to a World Rugby law review group in 2018, when the game was so concerned about reducing dangerous head contact some nations were discussing tackles above nipple height to be banned.

The Dirty Dozen – Scott Johnson’s proposed law explained

  • A study is done to determine how many defensive penalties and/or advantages is reasonable in an 80-minute game, and a maximum limit is created (say 12). 
  • A count is kept for every time a referees penalises a team for a defensive infringement, or even awards advantage to the attacking team.
  • The count is monitored by a match day official and displayed prominently on the scoreboard.
  • When the maximum limit is reached, the offending player is sin-binned.
  • The count is re-set but at 50% of the maximum total, so at six if the max is 12.
  • Yellow cards can still be issued at any stage for outright cynical play, without the count being re-set.

“I thought that was the last resort and I didn’t think it was practical,” Johnson said.

Studies showed 75 per cent of concussions happen to the tackler, and that is partly due to the fact defenders on their feet more often than not outnumber attackers – which frees up defenders to deploy super-heated line speed and get in dangerous collisions.

Johnson showed the World Rugby law review group a clip of a 40:20 in the NRL and proposed a similar law forcing defensive teams to take numbers out of the line by dropping wingers back.

“It was a good example to use, it was, and we used that as an example of it being used successfully in another sport,” Johnson said.

Scott Johnson was Australia’s director of rugby between 2019 and 2021.Credit:Rugby AU Media

“It is not so much how many occur, it’s the threat of it. It adds another dimension to the game and the evidence shows that’s a good thing. It is forcing the defending side to not think they can just dominate by line speed.

“In our early data over the first two years, more than a third of the time they were scoring off it, so it was a big scoring opportunity if you get one. It’s a new dimension, and you have a choice to make as the defending side. Cover it, or face the consequence.”

Though first used in the NRC in 2019, Australian teams haven’t used their head start to full advantage, which Johnson puts down to a general reticence to kick.

“Kicking is alien to us, as a country. We have always perceived kicking is a negative thing but New Zealand, who are the most attacking team in the world, kick substantially more than we do,” Johnson said.

“It can actually be a good attacking weapon but it hasn’t been in our head space. In time, we will get better at it.”

Johnson said the idea behind bringing in a goal-line drop-out for a held-up, instead of a scrum feed to the attacking team, was to reward defences, and just speed up the game.

“That was a bug bear of mine for years,” Johnson said. “My crusade was I wanted to see some equal reward for defence.”

He showed clips from Super Rugby where the ball was back in play in 35 seconds from a drop-out, as opposed to over six minutes following a tedious scrum sequence. And the drop-out law trial was expanded to include grounding a kick in-goal, which has had the benefit of encouraging attacking kicks.

The 20-minute red card replacement rule was designed to find a sweet spot of punishment and maintaining a game’s integrity, by allowing a team to substitute a red-carded player after 20 minutes.

 The red card against Marika Koroibete was overturned by the World Rugby judiciary.

The red card against Marika Koroibete was overturned by the World Rugby judiciary.Credit:AP

It is being trialled in Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, for a second year, and World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin said a global trial will depend on the resulting data. There is fierce opposition in many quarters in the Northern Hemisphere, however, who believe the 20-minute punishment is not severe enough.

“It has unanimous support around the south,” Johnson said.

“I don’t like the argument, never have, that people deliberately go and do ‘x’. I think those days are gone but I think there is often ambiguity, where the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. It is a nice compromise; we are all about safety, we want a better game and spectacle, but 20 minutes to me seems a good compromise.

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“If there is foul play, go for longer suspensions post the event. Take your time, get it right.”

Johnson said he wouldn’t regard the adoption of the 50:22 and goal-line laws as a personal achievement.

“It is good for Australia, it’s not about me,” he said.

“Australia can be seen as inventive and constructive, and not trying to ruin the sport because they’re not good at it, which has been the perception sometimes in the north.”

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