Should The Clock Stop When The Ball Goes Dead?

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The amount of ‘dead time’ during professional rugby union matches is a blight on the game that needs resolving sooner rather than later.

Despite games lasting for 80 minutes (or sometimes longer), the amount of time the ball is actually in play during professional rugby games is around 35 minutes – that’s an average of around 44% of a game. The below table takes a look at the time in play stats throughout World Cups to give us an idea of just how bad the problem is.

1991 to 2011 is shown below:

Rugby World CupTime in play (of 80 minutes)Percentage time in play
199124 mins 48 seconds31%
199526 mins 43 secs33.4%
199930 mins 43 secs38.4%
200333 mins 35 secs42%
200735 mins 12 secs44%
201135 mins 25 secs44.3%

(Source IRB Report 2011)

For reference, the time in play statistics were fairly similar for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Now whilst there has been a significant upward trajectory in the amount of time the ball spends in play (we now see an extra 10 minutes of action), it still feels like fans are being robbed of the action they expect to see.

It has been one of the major criticisms of rugby in recent years from other sports, and as a union fan myself, it is one of the few gripes I actually find myself agreeing with league fans on. In fairness, the action itself is always intense, unlike in say football (soccer for our American friends), however, at least with football the ball is almost constantly in play.

The problem is not just that scrums and line outs take time to set (and then reset), but teams in the lead are increasingly resorting to time wasting tactics when it comes to penalties, and set piece plays. Whilst taking the maximum amount of time available to take a penalty in the dying minutes is perfectly within the rules, it hardly makes for a great spectacle.

Equally, watching forwards in a huddle for thirty seconds before trundling over to the touchline and setting up for a line out is hardly prime time entertainment. Now obviously, to an extent, there is a necessity for these build ups. At the scrum for example, players and officials must ensure the platform is stable or there is a serious risk of injury to participants. The issue however is that this ‘set-up time’ should not come at the expense of paying fans.

The answer to this seems pretty simple really – why isn’t the clock stopped until the ball is ‘live’ once more. A time limit for the setup phase should also be enforced for teams to get into position and begin the play to ensure the breaks between moments of play aren’t too exaggerated.

This would obviously mean games lasted for longer periods as there would be around an extra 44 minutes of playing time per game, which isn’t great for some of the bigger players up front. However, what this would do is create more spaces in defences to allow for attacking players to slip through holes and get over the gainline. The benefits being twofold, with fans getting more moments of excitement over a longer period.

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