A silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Rules of Hockey

9.12 Players must not obstruct an opponent who is attempting to play the ball.

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. No conditions or circumstances not specifically mentioned in any Rule statement can to be assumed. Everything the Rule maker needs the participants to know to comply with a Rule must be fully explained. It is also almost a certainty that people who have not ever read a rule book will have very fixed ideas about what the Rules state and what they do not, and it will be extraordinarily difficult to get them to change their opinions because they will have formed their opinions by listening to and/or watching people they respect and trust.

When the Obstruction Rule is read together with the provided Explanation of Application of Rule it quickly becomes apparent that the normal principles of comprehensive explanation are 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.

Explanation of Application Rule 9.12.
Players obstruct if they:-

back into an opponent.

It is possibly acceptable for a Rule (the words of the Rule Proper) 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 Rule Proper is undefined, but a reading of the Explanation clauses should make it very clear what actions ‘to obstruct’ include  – but this is not clear.

I’ll demonstrate with what may seem to be the reasonably clear Explanation clause above:

Players obstruct if they back into an opponent.

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 there only an assumption, it is not specified in the clause. The clause could refer only to off the ball play such as ‘third party’ obstruction.

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’ that is only backing towards an opponent is not an offence, no matter how close the players get, unless physical contact is made. To support this approach he 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 they are within playing reach of the ball when they are attempting 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 in the parking bay in the same way a backing player (or a player leading the ball while shunting sideways towards an opponent) is within the playing reach of an opponent (often causing the opponent to back off to avoid physical contact, in which case a tackle attempt may become an impossibility).

Unfortunately the phrase “attempting to play the ball” which comprises much of the Rule Proper, is nowhere explained and it is necessary to construct circumstances in which a tackle attempt may be made, and also where one cannot be made and to know the reasons why in each case.This is not as easy as it might appear, but it is easier to describe situations in which a tackle attempt cannot be made (or is prevented) than it is to describe a legitimate tackle attempt. If you don’t believe that try it and see if you can come up with a ‘watertight’ definition that will fit all circumstances.

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) But how? 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 or even an attempt to con an umpire.

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 more generally, but not exclusively, 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 immediately and 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 (I’ll come back to deletions).

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 (because it is unnecessary) 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.

The second  part of that clause (after the first use of the word opponent) is the 2009 amendment, which has been practically ignored since it was published.

It 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 of the physical contact Rule.

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 replacing “is” with “may also be”. 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 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 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, which was deleted in 2004) as that would just present an empty goal to a ball holder who would turn away to the other side of any attempt to go around him (an obvious flaw in the instruction that was not obvious to the person who drafted it  – and from there is was apparently just ‘rubber stamped’ without serious consideration being given to the effect it could have on the playing of the game). The deletion of this ‘go around demand’  was made with good reason but participants are still babbling on about an ‘onus’ on a tackler to go around an opponent in possession of the ball (to get unobstructed) who declare, quite absurdly, that tacklers are not obstructed unless they take this action because they are not in a position to tackle for the ball  (because they are obstructed). The same people don’t consider that there is an onus on a player in possession of the ball not to obstruct opponents who are trying to play at it, but of course there is, otherwise there would be no Obstruction Rule. Oddly the ‘onus’ crowd don’t point to any of the other conditions that disappeared in 2004, because I assume, most of them were directed at the player in possession of the ball and not the opposing tackler. Not all of them disappeared, but it is difficult to explain why those that did were deleted.The third and fourth clause listed below are now common in play and many participants insist they are not obstructive actions. When- as they will  – they point out these clauses are deleted I can reply “So is the onus on a tackler to go around an opponent when obstructed, to reposition to make a tackle, and obstruction is still the prevention of a tackle attempt by means of ball shielding”

Umpires should be aware of players who are in possession of the ball who:
• back into an opponent;
• turn and try to push past an opponent; (barging)
• shield the ball with body, leg or stick and stand still when under pressure;
• drag the ball near their back foot when moving down the side-line or along the back-line;
• shield the ball with the stick to prevent a legitimate tackle

As difficult as the Obstruction Rule makes it to play the game (demanding movement skills) or worse, to learn to play it – and as unpopular as it may be with players in possession of the ball – without an Obstruction Rule, a non-contact game which hockey is, (there’s a surprise for some) becomes a farce. Which is why, when combined with the failure to penalise forcing offences, hockey has become a farce.


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