The way rugby is played is not what is broken

rugby14 May 2024 07:00| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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As World Rugby prepared to announce law changes and experiments designed to make the sport quicker and more entertaining but which in many instances could do the exact opposite, there were headlines around two other sports that suggest their focus might be in the wrong place.

The bigger of the two was in the round ball game around the backlash to Fifa’s planned 32-team Club World Cup which is scheduled to take place in the United States in June next year. The international players’ union, Fifpro, and the World Leagues organisation, have threatened legal action if the tournament goes ahead as planned.

The threatened legal action is around a contention that Fifa’s new match calendar is “beyond saturation”, causing “economic harm” for domestic leagues and posing a “significant injury risk” to players.

Of course, June is supposedly the off-season in football, although that is when international competitions like the Fifa World Cup and Euros are played. At least soccer has a global off-season. There isn’t one in rugby, with South Africa seemingly committed to a 12 month treadmill that doesn’t help the players and I’d think fans might suffer too in the sense that the non-stop diet of rugby becomes monotonous.


Yes, this column has gone down the road of less is more before. Yes, player management is regulated in the sense that they all have to get a certain amount of time off, which was why the Springboks were missing from action at a stage of their franchise teams’ Vodacom United Rugby Championship campaigns.

But the challenges are psychological as well as physical, and can a player take a proper mental rest when his team is playing league matches that will impact on his own goals later in the season? And we don’t have to ask whether taking three weeks leave here and two weeks leave there, in other words not having a proper off-season to first recover from the previous campaign and then prepare for the next, is good for the players or the game. It patently isn’t.

It is not just South Africa, because of the commitment to a northern club season and a southern international season, that suffers from World Rugby’s failure to be decisive on the implementation of a global season either. It is a global problem. In season there is often too much rugby, with different competitions cutting across each other and forcing lots of games to be played under-strength and therefore toned down in quality. Out of season - well, July should be out of season, but it is also a month set aside for international tours.

Which effectively means the international players who are not South African get just the month of August when there is no rugby before they climb onto the treadmill for the start of the next season in September. If you are a Springbok, then in August and September you play in the Rugby Championship.


But it is money that makes the world go round and keeps people alive, and it would be naive to think that adjustments can be made without hitting someone’s bottom line. Which cues the other headline that hit the sports media in England recently, which can be neatly paraphrased as professional cricketers complaining that they play too much and that the county game in that country is not cut for purpose.

Few would disagree with that, but as former England captain Mike Atherton pointed out in a newspaper column, would those players be prepared to accept job cuts if they got their way? A cut to the number of professional cricketers in England, with currently around 400 under contract, would surely have to be the logical consequence to streamlining the county game and moving it towards high performance.

Economic necessity does drive the distortion between what is sensible and what is, to my mind anyway, counter-productive in rugby too. In my personal view it is daft that the Currie Cup will be played when it should be off-season, but there are probably many players who might not be paid to play the game were that competition to be cut from the roster.

While the oldest provincial competition in the world has lost its lustre in most eyes and has, because it is not played at full strength by the bigger unions, assumed the status of the old Vodacom Cup, apparently many of the union sponsors and the sponsors of rugby in general don’t see that and they still want their pound of flesh.

How many professional players can the South African game support? Interesting question. This country arguably does have one of the best, if not the best, schooling systems when it comes to rugby and the academies at the major unions are like factories the way they produce talented players.


That doesn’t cut across my argument though that World Rugby should be prioritising the issues above before launching what many see as an attack on the scrum aimed at de-powering the Springboks and making it harder for them to continue their current domination of World Cups.

Not that it is only South Africans who will be frustrated, for there are many globally who are decrying what appears to be an attempt to move away from the essence of what rugby has always been.

Frankly, the most talked about new law variation, which decrees that a scrum cannot be taken from a free kick, could only have been dreamt up by someone who struggles with logical thought. For the change is being driven by a perception that it will maximise attacking opportunity, yet ask any backline player when in a game he sees the most space around him and he will tell you it is when a scrum is being set.

Attack coaches exist because of the work they do on set plays from a scrum, when 16 of the 30 players on the field are confined to an area of a few metres squared while the other 14 players can spread themselves across the width of the field. Unless it is done really quickly, the quick tap from a free kick comes when there are 15 players set up in defence.

If the scrum becomes less important the beefy props that have been seen as so integral to the sport will start to be replaced by more mobile players. Mobile, athletic players will be better at defending, thus limiting the mismatches that occur when a back runs at a prop, which are often the only vulnerabilities to exploit in the dominant modern defensive systems.


When it comes to where World Rugby should be looking if they really want to make rugby more entertaining and spectator friendly, I am completely with Joel Stransky, who said during commentary at the weekend that it is not the scrums that slow the game down but the interminable amount of time it takes for referees and TMOs to watch video replays and then consult before making a decision.

Technology is being overused and given that the fans in the stadium aren’t made aware of what is being discussed, it leaves those who don’t get consumed by euphoria every time they hear Sweet Caroline needing to turn the pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to fill the time. Which is not what you want.

There are some necessary innovations among the changes, but many of them are just common sense moves to something that should have been logical in the first place. For the most part the latest raft of changes remind me of the ELVs of 2008, and we know how that was received and how long that lasted.

The assumption that rugby is broken because of the way it is played is wrong. If it is broken, and that is a separate debate, it’s because of the way it is officiated, the way technology is being applied, the congestion that leads to understrength games and because the carding system employed to make the sport safer makes so much of the contact one big lottery.