The world of modern sport is one determined by entertainment, viewing figures and player safety. This leads itself inevitably to innovation, and rugby, with its concussion controversy and declining participation rates in established countries, finds itself in need of reinvention.
“It could be tag rugby. It has to be women’s rugby,” says Simon Halliday, the chairman of European Professional Club Rugby, “You will see a proliferation. Everyone is trying to create an environment where fans can come early, spend time, enjoy an exciting product. The 15s game is going to be sharing more with other forms.”
It is new products, as well as alterations to the existing format, that will catch the eye in the future. Just as T20, ODI and Test cricket exist in a tense cooperation, so too will rugby have to diversify to survive.
Most obviously, rugby sevens has the capacity to grow the game as a whole. It is fast, skilful, less based on dangerous high impact collisions, and, crucially, now an Olympic sport. This status gives it not only greater global reach, but also opens new avenues for funding.
Since rugby was announced at the Olympics, the USA, China and other large players have increased funding in order to compete with the more traditional nations.
In the year following the Rio Olympics, research conducted by Nielsen Sports in the growing markets of Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States suggested that around 17 million new fans were someway attracted to rugby as a result of watching the sevens.
According to a former USA Rugby chief executive, “Having rugby in the Olympics gives a legitimacy and an overall awareness that we haven’t been able to get.”
Likewise, the coach of USA Sevens, Mike Friday, “sevens is the key to unlocking the game in America… sevens ticks all the boxes for them – power, pace, hand-eye, physical collisions, evasive skills, fast-moving, and the games are played thick and fast and that’s the adrenaline rush that the American sporting public love.”
For, Tom Mitchell, the GB sevens captain, it is not convincing audiences to fall in love with rugby that is the issue, but the traditionalists that sevens should be valued in and of itself.
“There were definitely a lot of people who had their heads turned and looked at sevens in a different way. They maybe had a new-found respect for the guys who play it and everything that goes with it.”
In countries like the United Kingdom, sevens has tended to be stuck on the end of the club or school sides playing calendar, an opportunity for the fast kids to have some fun and the forwards to relax. This is a perception that is definitely changing.
Rugby must be willing to analyse what it is that makes sevens attractive to new audiences and try to adapt the full sided game accordingly. However, there is, with good reason, a desire to protect the complexity and tactical depth of the XV a side game.
One potential avenue for development of the game is Global Rapid Rugby. The league, run by Australian businessman Andrew Forrest, has been constructed with the express desire to “swim against the tide of tradition.”
The game played in the league is fifteen a side, but with marked rule changes. It acts, says Forrest, as a “Petri dish” for future rule changes. At the moment, you can score a nine point ‘power try’ from a move originating in your own 22, the matches are 70 minutes long, and a red card results in a 20 minute deficit of one player, with a substitute allowed to replace the perpetrator after the 20 minutes has elapsed.
Moving forward, it is obvious that the tackle is set to change dramatically. Tackle height is being lowered, for a chief concern among those at the top is decreasing the intensity of collisions.
Rugby is set to become more open; based upon running and evasion rather than confrontation, kicking and pressure. For many, some of these prospects may feel corrupting, but for the sport to grow, which it must in a highly competitive market if it is to exist at all, it must become more accessible to the untrained eye.
Written by Joe Ronan