The destruction of the Obstruction Rule.

Rules of Hockey.

The explanation of application of the current Obstruction Rule states:-

1) A stationary player receiving the ball is permitted to face in any direction.

I’ll change the order in which the three clauses are presented, this is the third in the rule-book:-

2) A player who runs in front of or blocks an opponent to stop them legitimately playing or attempting to play the ball is obstructing (this is third party or shadow obstruction).

The part in parenthesis should (in my opinion) read  this may also be third party or shadow obstruction because such actions may also be ball shielding by a player in possession of the ball (blocking) or carried out as an obstructive tackle coming from behind the tackled player and imposing the body between that player and the ball.

The clause below was the last amended.

3) A player with the ball is permitted to move off with it in any direction except bodily into an opponent or into a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it.

A player with the ball here is assumed to refer not to a player who is in the act of receiving the ball, but to one who has received the ball and has it under control.

When the exception to the Obstruction Rule, which permitted a closely marked player to receive the ball without immediately being in breach of the Obstruction Rule (that is without having first to create space to receive the ball without obstructing an opponent – usually by means of a lead run), was first introduced, instruction was given about what the receiving player had to do once the ball was in control, given that in these circumstances the receiving player, then in controlled possession of the ball, had an opponent positioned directly or almost directly behind (sic) them, i.e. within playing reach of the ball in what would previously have been considered an obstructed position.

Having collected the ball, the receiver must move away in any direction (except, of course, bodily into the tackler).

That instruction was fairly loose because it gave no indication of the distance the ball holder (having received the ball) must move away or the speed of such movement. But common practice at the time was that the ball needed to be moved immediately and rapidly beyond the playing reach of any marking defender or the ball had to be immediately passed away beyond playing reach. Critical was “must move away” the ball holder having received the ball was not allowed to dwell on it in a stationary position or indeed to dribble it away at, for example, walking speed – because that would not reasonably be considered to take the ball beyond the reach of any opponent intent on making a tackle for the ball.

The above fairly sensible instruction given in the Rules Interpretations did not last long. Two years later we were presented, without explanation for the change, with:-

Having collected the ball, the receiver may move away in any direction (except, of course, bodily into the tackler).

That is neither a directive or a prohibitive statement, it gives no instruction about moving the ball away or moving away with the ball, except not to move bodily into a tackler. It does not oblige the ball holder to move at all. From this moment on the Obstruction Rule began to fall apart as multiple personal ‘interpretations’ of the meaning of the above clause were applied. It is from this body of ‘interpretation’ that the idea that a stationary player could not obstruct arose – and persisted – despite later instruction to umpires to watch for players who “stand still and shield the ball when under pressure

Then we had A player with the ball is permitted to move off with it in any direction except bodily into an opponent in the Rule Explanation – is permitted to move means exactly the same as may move (but “off” does not mean exactly the same as “away” – it is, if anything weaker) why the change to the wording was made is unclear, again no explanation was offered.

But, finally, in 2009, we had the addition of an extension to that clause:-

A player with the ball is permitted to move off with it in any direction except bodily into an opponent or into a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it. Which is a current Rule Explanation of Application clause.

That means that a player who has received and controlled the ball may not then move into a position between an opponent and the ball, that is with the ball within the playing reach of an opponent who is attempting to play at it (such moving would naturally include backing towards and moving the ball into the playing reach of an opponent while shielding it, because such moving is not excluded)- and of course a ball holder may not remain stationary in a blocking position with the ball within the playing reach of an opponent who is attempting to play at it – see the clause numbered 2) above. The 2009 amendment seems however to have come too late, by the time it was enacted umpires had become accustomed to allowing receiving players to do as they liked once the ball was in control – and they continued doing what had become an easy habit – all the ‘onus’ (to get unobstructed) had long been transferred to the tackling player, the 2009 amendment was largely ignored and remains so.

But nonetheless the Rule as written means that static blocking or a very small movement to shield the ball from an opponent can be an obstructive offence.

Here is a subtle example of obstructive play from the 2018 World Cup- Aus v Ned . There is very little movement by the ball holder but he commits three offences.

The Aus player receives the ball with his stick near horizontal to make a strong secure stop.

He then moves his left leg forward and then plants his right foot to his right making contact with and blocking off the stick of the Ned defender who is trying to tackle – this is an offence.

He moves across until he has completely blocked off the Ned defender with his body. This is moving into a position between the tackler and the ball and is his second offence (the first being stick interference). He makes no attempt at all to move off or move away from the defender with the ball once it is in his control. His obvious first legitimate direction of movement with the ball would have been to his left, as the defender was to his right rear, however he chose not to try and outrun the defender but to try immediately to make space for a shot.

The Aus player now uses a reverse stroke to feint to his right with the ball.

Then moves to his left as he leans back bodily into the tackler (an offence) and pivots off his right foot. In stepping back he traps the stick of the defender between his legs – because the defender had reached for the ball between the legs of the Aus player who was blocking his path to the ball (there is no ‘onus’ on a tackler to position to tackle or to go around a ball shielding opponent – that ‘interpretation’ was deleted post 2003) The tackler here had no opportunity anyway to move around the ball holder’s left side (and to do so would have opened the way for a free reverse edge shot) and if he had attempted to move around the ball-holders right side he would have given him a free forehand shot at the goal – he had in the circumstances to stay behind the ball holder and attempt to play at the ball from that position.

Having tangled himself with the defender’s stick the Aus player became impeded with it and made an off-target shot that went off the end of the pitch. There was therefore no need to penalise his obstructions or the physical contact as thede offences did not ultimately disadvantage the Dutch team, but I doubt the umpire would have penalised the attacker anyway (if he had achieved an on-target shot). Very few umpires appear to understand the words

A player with the ball is permitted to move off with it in any direction except bodily into an opponent or into a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it.

As meaning:-  A player with the ball is not permitted to move bodily into an opponent or into a  [blocking/shielding] position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it – which the wording clearly does mean.

Once a receiving player has control of the ball he or she then becomes ‘a player with the ball’ and there is no further exception to the Obstruction Rule; any further ball shielding that prevents an opponent playing at the ball, when that opponent is demonstrating an intent (attempting) to play at the ball and would otherwise have been able to do so, is an obstruction offence.

I was surprised that the umpire did not award a penalty corner against the Dutch team for a contact tackle by the defender, even if that would have been incorrect, as Aus player’s entanglement with the defender’s stick was caused by his own turning action. Some umpires seem to regard any sort of tackle attempt as an offence. (See video below – which is another example, far more blatant, of obstruction by a player in possession of the ball, which was not penalised – but the the shadowing defender was penalised, which was absurd.)

Here we go again. Big butt skills.

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