Archive for February 5th, 2020

February 5, 2020

A silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Explanation of Application Rule 9.12. Players obstruct if they back into opponents.

It is necessary when trying to communicate the meaning of statements made in Rules clauses or Explanation clauses not to assume any prior knowledge of the game by the intended listener/reader and an absence of deductive reasoning in these people. No conditions or circumstances not specifically mentioned in any statement can to be assumed. Everything the Rule maker needs the participants to know to comply with a Rule must be fully explained.

When the Obstruction Rule is read together with the provided Explanation of Application of Rule it quickly becomes apparent that the above principle is not adhered to. Much is left unexplained and much is assumed to be common knowledge. The current Rules and Explanations are a sow’s ear with nearly everyone of them being ‘interpreted’ into a multitude of personal ‘silk purses’, of value only to their inventors.

It is possibly acceptable for a Rule to be unclear when considered in isolation, the terms used may not have been previously explained, but the Rule should become very clear when the Explanation of Application clauses are read because all such clauses should be written in an unambiguous way. For example, the word ‘obstruct’ in the Obstruction Rule proper is undefined, but a reading of the Explanation clauses should make it very clear what the actions ‘to obstruct’ includes.

Unfortunately the phrase “attempting to play the ball” contained in the Rule, is nowhere explained in the Explanation clause and it is necessary to construct circumstances in which a tackle attempt can be made,  and also where one cannot be made and to know the reasons why in each case.

The word legitimate has several meanings and is used in a different ways in different Rules E.g. ‘legitimate evasive action’ and ‘legitimate tackle’ do not use the word ‘legitimate’ in the same way. A legitimate tackle is a tackle made in a legal way i.e without a foul (usually avoiding making physical contact with stick or body); legitimate evasive action is evasion that is necessary to avoid injury and is genuine for that reason. Evasive action cannot reasonably be considered to be illegal even when it is unnecessary.

Let’s start with what may seem to be the reasonably clear Explanation clause above: Players obstruct if they back into opponents. which is in fact unclear and applied in a wide variety of ways or not applied at all. Is the opponent assumed to be in possession of the ball at the time and shielding it from an opponent while backing into that opponent? Reasonable assumptions perhaps, but possession of the ball is only an assumption, it is not specified in the clause. The clause could refer to off the ball play such as ‘third party’ obstruction. 

And what does ‘back in’ mean? The American umpire coach Cris Maloney asserts that it means to back into physical contact with an opponent, and that ‘backing in’ (backing towards) is not an offence, no matter how close the players get, unless physical contact is made. To support this approach in points out, in analogy, that a car that backs into another car hits that car – otherwise it has not backed into that car.

I disagree with his view of backing in and take the view that a player who moves backwards taking the ball into the playing reach of an opposing player, while at the same time shielding the ball from that player (the tackler) to prevent a tackle attempt, obstructs that opponent immediately he or she brings the ball within the playing reach of the tackler. Why?  Because players may be obstructed once within playing reach of the ball when they are physically demonstrating an intention to carry out a tackle. I answer the analogy of the backing car by pointing out that a car that backs into a garage or into a parking bay is not backed up until it hits something (a back wall or a fence) and is in the garage or parking bay in the same way a backing player is within the playing reach of an opponent.

It is often possible to look at prior wording to Rule or Explanation or to amendments added to Rule or Explanations at a later date (with obstruction the amendments were made in 1993, 1995, 2001, 2004 and 2009, with 1995 and 2004 being years in which major rule-book rewrites were undertaken) to get a better sense of what the HRB /FIH RC intended. Fortunately in the case of this particular clause there is a 2009 amendment that provides clarity. I will come back to that because it also includes part of the next “a player obstructs” statement.

– Players obstruct if they shield the ball from a legitimate tackle with their stick or any part of their body.

A shield and shielding is often thought of something to protect the body from another object moving towards it. An umbrella for example is generally used to shield a person from rain. The other form of shielding is the use of the body itself to protect something or some one from attack or to prevent loss of possession of the thing shielded. It is used in this latter sense in the Obstruction Rule and it is considered an illegal action if it prevents an opponent, who would otherwise be able to play directly at the ball, from doing so. In 2002 the rule-book (and the UMB) contained advice to umpires to “watch for players who stand still and shield the ball when under pressure” Again a lot of assumptions, but that advice clearly informed umpires that a stationary player who was shielding the ball to prevent a tackle attempt by an opponent, was as guilty of obstruction as one who moved to impose his or her body between an opponent and the ball.

But what is a legitimate tackle? Here legitimate appears to mean ‘legal’ or ‘Rule compliant’ i.e. not illegal. An illegal tackle, according to 9.13. is one that is made from a position where physical contact is (inevitable/unavoidable). Sliding tackles are often like this. There is of course a world of difference between a front-on or side-on sliding tackle at an open ball and a tackle attempt from the sort of positions that a ball holder puts a tackler in when moving to shield the ball from the tackler That is moving his or her body (or the ball) to maintain positions where the ball is body shielded from the player intent on tackling for it, these latter actions are obstructive and an offence.

Here is the 2009 improved version of ‘Players obstruct  if they back into opponents combined with players obstruct if they move to shield the ball from a legitimate tackle with their stick or any part of their body.
A player with the ball is permitted to move off with it in any direction except bodily into an opponent. (contact offence).
or into a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it. (ball shielding).

If the part about what a player with the ball is allowed to do is omitted we get, with a slight change of syntax, a clearer picture of what is prohibited.

A player with the ball is not permitted to move 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.

That could be improved “A player with the ball is not permitted to move into bodily contact with an opponent…. etc”. If body to body contact is prohibited, which is the case, that should be clearly stated even if it is duplication.

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). Improved by (this may also be third party or shadow obstruction)

When the wording of Rules gives an umpires ‘ sow’s ear’s to work with no amount of ‘interpretation’ improves matters, personal ‘interpretations’ generally make things far worse (because they vary between umpires) and they are not permitted anyway. The proper course of action is to lobby the FIH RC for amendment to the wording. An effective lobby group has to be in agreement about what changes it wants of course, and there’s the rub. 

The 2009 amendment is an improvement on what was there previously (after 2004) except that the advice on the situation of the stationary player under pressure was ‘lost’ in the 2004 rewrite and there is still no explanation of what action constitutes a tackle attempt (is it not physical demonstration by a tackler that there is intent to make a tackle?), and no mention, outside the advice in the UMB, of the illegal prevention of a tackle attempt  (which is basically what an obstruction offence by a player in possession of the ball is). So we get situations such as those in the shootout in the video below, where an attacker moves to position between a close opponent and the ball with impunity (apparently with immunity from the Obstruction Rule) preventing that player (the goalkeeper) from playing at the ball when he would otherwise have been able to do so – the ball being within his reach. The goalkeeper cannot “go around” the ball-holder (previous daft and unfair advice circa 1993) as that would just present an empty goal to a ball holder who would turn away to the other side from any attempt to go around him or her.