The great and the good of World Rugby met at a landmark symposium last week in Paris to review the current laws to identify whether or not any amendments could be made to improve the spectacle as a whole and of course move towards improving player safety. Since the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, players, on average have gained 12kg (almost 2 stone) and the number of rucks and mauls in a match have increased by 500%. In the last decade alone, the number of collisions and resultant impact forces have doubled. These figures are undoubtedly what World Rugby needs to concentrate on, innovations that encourage increased space and aerobic load may help to reverse these trends. A total of 8 amendment proposals were put forward with the intention of having a direct impact on player welfare. These will be discussed at a further meeting in May, in which a potential trial period (likely to begin in the New Year) and competition will be decided. Some of the ideas aren’t that new, but if applied, may still prove their worth. Countdown clocks for scrums and reduced numbers of replacements are often championed as methods to improve the spectacle, speed up the game and increase player fatigue if they down trim down. But what else has been put forward? Here we take a look.
Perhaps the most interesting proposal borrows itself from Rugby League, specifically the “40-20” kick law. In Rugby Union, the “50-22” kick law, would see possession retained by a team should they kick the ball from within their own half and were it to bounce into touch within the opposition 22. Which of course would be a radical overhaul to the current scenario. The theory behind this alteration is that the defending team would have to drop more players into the backfield as opposed to keeping them in the defensive line. At present, an attacking team could face a pitch-wide wall of 14 players with only one covering. Fewer players in said line, would clearly lead to more space and therefore attacking rugby – the intention is to shift the onus onto crossing the advantage through attacking movement as opposed to force. Players would need to be lighter and more skilful to exploit and defend such space – a fundamental alteration to the philosophy of rugby in 2019. It has also been hypothesised that fewer bodies will reduce the number of in-play collisions, specifically those involving the head of a player. It remains to be seen whether or not this will result in an increase to ‘kick-tennis’ (i.e. less ball in hand) or marks being called – but in a poll run by The Times last week saw 76% in favour of the trial.
There is no arguing that one of the most dangerous aspects of the modern game is in the contact area, massive strides have been made to make collisions safer but that doesn’t mean that more can’t be done. It is important to remember that 72% of injuries in the tackle occur to the defender. Plans are in place to remove the jackal at rucktime, which more importantly will remove the blind collision the defender may receive. Instead teams will need to contest the ruck by binding and having to push over, again increasing fatigue and space outside. It remains to be seen if teams will contest, but there may well be multiple styles that could add to the complexity of a game. World Rugby have also committed to increasing the volume of red cards shown for dangerous play – a direct attempt to fundamentally change player attitude and application. One tool to aid officials will be new powers to the TMO in which yellow card offences can be reviewed during the sin-bin period and upgraded to a red where necessary. Decisions will no longer be rushed in the heat of the movement instead there will be clarity and proper consideration can be given with multiple camera angles. Further to this, a high tackle warning system is to be incorporated an innovation that has already been shown to half concussions at the 2018 U20 RWC. The system would see a post-match warning being issued to a player who has executed a dangerous tackle or exhibited poor technique, two such warnings would result in a ban, unless evidence can be provided to show an improved technique. You do have to question whether or not older players would be open to such instruction? This amendment is not only meant to be instructive to the player, but it is hoped it will have a long-term influence on how the game is played.
From a fan’s perspective, it is great to know that World Rugby are willing to change and innovate – there are many sports that may bury their head in the sand until its too late when faced with some of the questions that rugby has. It is also important to remember that these law amendments are by no means set in stone – there have been trials before, all analysed in depth, that have been shelved (6 points for a try) and even cut short (below nipple tackle); so if there is no improvement to player safety or the spectacle nothing is likely to change. If successful, however, the landscape of the game may change. Power will always be important in rugby, but some of these changes may move to help redress the balance in strength over skill and help make the game something for all shapes and sizes once more.
Written by – James Jones