This October, the Rugby World Cup, the pinnacle of the rugby calendar, kicks off. In the same month, a far more radical experiment will be conducted at the O2 Arena in London. Rugby X has been described as “fast and furious” and based on rugby’s “core principles”. “It’s Rugby. Accelerated,” reads its slogan.
Backed by World Rugby, the showpiece event will see 5-a-side games played on a smaller pitch without posts. Matches will last 10 minute matches, with teams comprised of mainly sevens internationals.
The principle that the new tournament is based upon is an attempt to quicken, commercialise and democratise rugby, a game which can feel esoteric, given its disorientating multitude of rules and regulations. Likewise, the plan is not to displace or rival other forms of the game, but rather compliment them. It is thought the long term plan is to secure a contact in order to show matches on terrestrial television at peak hours.
“That’s the plan. If you look at 15s as being your five-day Test matches, and the one-day internationals being 7s, and Twenty20 being Rugby X; I can see that happening… we are not clashing with 7s tournaments or 15s tournaments. I see it as a vital tool that can help the 7s,” says Olympic gold medal winning sevens coach Ben Ryan, who is involved in the marketing of Rugby X.
With a particular emphasis on skill and pace over power, games are likely to draw comparisons to NBA. Although critics may argue Rugby X could cheapen the full sided game, Ryan’s reference to the positive relationship between the different forms of cricket (think Ben Stokes’ World Cup heroics, and the draw he now has for new fans of test cricket) shows such variety of format can work.
For those with a particular interest in the grassroots game, particularly the problem rugby has with expanding its playing game outside of traditional geographic and socioeconomic boundaries, the potential impact of Rugby X is intriguing.
“I do [see it dying], and I see it across the board,” Ryan says of grassroots rugby. “Extra-curricular sport is dying in state schools, especially in the inner cities.”
“It is very hard – even if you are a mad keen rugby teacher working in an inner-city school – to start up rugby at the moment. 15s is obviously technically difficult as a start-up, and 7s is just aerobically and anaerobically shattering.”
“This gives a short-sided and simple version, where teachers with no background in rugby, in limited resources in limited space, can get the game going.”
Ryan’s assessment of the grassroots game is not fatalistic nor sensationalist, and the link he draws between the sleek, marketable, professional level Rugby X, and the school playground and local park is reassuring to hear.
The game could be played with little more than a ball, some jumpers and a square patch of grass. This changes things for rugby. It simplifies the game, the rules would be less complex, tactics less important. Playing Rugby X would help children build up basic skills before hopefully encouraging them to engage other forms of the sport.
Rugby X is a positive, ambitious plan, but it must follow through with this talk of grassroots revival. If it simply becomes some form of cheap, Harlem Globetrotters style arena tour, it will have failed to fulfil its obvious potential.
Written by Joe Ronan