Rugby is increasingly a product, a spectacle designed to entertain. As such, lawmakers repeatedly make changes to the rules in order to maximise ‘ball in play time,’ to try and make rugby an attractive sport for consumers and investors. However, there is a sense that this meddling is counterproductive, shifting the game in unwanted directions.
At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, the game feels increasingly proscribed, choreographed and calculable. The colour, romance and unpredictability of the great Welsh and French sides of old is gone forever. Modern rugby’s most entertaining sides, like the Crusaders and All Blacks, are ruthlessly efficient, fast and brutal in a clinical fashion.
More and more top level matches see a repetitive, attritional duel of defence versus attack, sometimes for thirty or forty phases, until one side relents or coughs up the ball. Turnovers offer a rare opportunity to break the game up, offering an element of unpredictability, but they are increasingly rare.
The most efficient, structured, ordered teams thrive in the current environment. Whether that be Leinster, Saracens, or Ireland under Joe Schmidt (seemingly entirely reliant of Schmidt’s ‘powerplays’ in order to score tries). Watching these teams play is an exercise in repetition, routines and systems. The box kick has been overused to death. Exit strategies from deep kick offs are the order of the day.
The view of former Wales captain Paul Thorburn, is that this structured nature is ruining the game, “I’m not even sure the product is very good anymore… rugby has become dire and so predictable it beggars belief.”
“Law makers are spoiling the product and I can’t be alone in being sick of the sight of the dreaded defensive line strung out across the field killing the game as a spectacle.”
Some of Paul Thorburn’s recommendations are clearly regressive, harking back to a bygone era to which the sport will never return, “rucking should be restored to speed up the game and take forwards out of that line. That would be a start.”
Nevertheless, his point stands: in an increasingly commercialised sporting world these trends will be counterproductive. If clubs and unions want to be more financially viable then the game has to become more attractive, open and unpredictable.
There are different ways of trying to do this, attempting to get more men in rucks to open space out wide is the old way, but not the only one. JPR Williams, the great Welsh fullback, once said that rugby will need to remove two players from the field one day, or the two teams will simply run out of room. That prophecy seems to be coming to pass.
According to World Rugby, “The future shape of rugby will be determined by evidence-based injury-prevention initiatives,” designed to open up play and decrease collisions in the defensive line, where the majority of injuries occur.
One of the most radical, and interesting, of these initiatives is the proposed 50:22 rule, whereby a player who finds touch with a kick from his own half in the opposition 22 would be rewarded with a line out.
The idea is, that in forcing teams to drop players into the backfield, World Rugby will create more opportunities for holes in the primary defensive line. Whether or not 50:22 is the answer, is, of course, impossible to tell. It is possible, although unlikely, that 50:22 could lead to a mind numbingly boring 15 aside game of kicking tennis. Nevertheless, it is a relief to see World Rugby addressing the right issues.
Written by Joe Ronan