Radical changes needed to safeguard the future of rugby
REACTION to the recent decision of the International Rugby Board to allow the game of Rugby Union to go professional has concentrated almost exclusively on money.
Little if any debate has centred on the actual game itself and the possible changes required to keep it a successful spectator sport for the next century.
The public will demand better and more entertaining performances from players who are paid to play and that is the main reason why the English team was jeered in Twickenham last December when they scored only two tries against a very average Western Samoan team.
The below par performance of England can no doubt be attributed to a variety of reasons, but high on the list must be that there are too many players on the field, and the current laws support a negative spoiling team.
Rugby Union is a collision sport. Players are now larger, stronger and fitter than ever, and they will become even larger, stronger and fitter. Professionalism will see to that.
Recent innovations in the game have built on this strength and power by the development of the rolling, move, with players taking short passes to run straight at the opposition in an attempt to punch holes in their defence.
The unfortunate human body was not designed to absorb punishment, like this, as is evidenced by the increasing number of injuries suffered by today's players.
Parents of young children watching this type of play, especially mothers, are unlikely to be convinced that this is the game for their child. It is imperative for the future development of the game that it be made safer to play and more attractive to watch. How this might be achieved is an open question, and the following ideas are suggested as starting points.
NUMBER OF PLAYERS: Rugby Union would be a much better game with 13 players on a team, six forwards and seven three quarters. The elimination of the two flankers would unclog the midfield area and leave the three quarters with space to take on their opposite numbers. It would guarantee a more expansive game.
A radical change like this would take time but, in the short term, flankers should be required to stay bound to the serum until the ball has been released.
PLAYING AREA: Last year the International Board extended the width of the playing area by one metre. Hardly a giant step for mankind. A further extension of two metres would guarantee more tries, which is what the game is all about.
LINEOUTS: The current law allows players to be supported as they jump for the ball in a lineout. Ask players what the difference between supporting and lifting is and they will usually smile. It is a totally grey area and an obvious solution would be to allow lifting in the lineouts.
RUCK AND MAUL: Players should be allowed to use their hands in loose play to get the ball back, whether it is on the ground or not. This would provide for greater continuity and help to eliminate players kicking and raking opponents on the pretext that they were reeking the ball.
KNOCK FORWARD: In a game that has far too many stoppages why should it come to a halt for an accidental knock on? In American foot ball a knock forward is referred to as a gamble, and there is great excitement when it occurs as it usually means that the other team recovers the ball. The elimination of the accidental knock forward would speed up the game.
SAFETY: The professional game with its attractive win bonuses is bound to make increased demands in the area of safety. Rugby, as it is currently structured, is not suited to a win at all costs philosophy. Unscrupulous players have far too many opportunities to take key players out of the game.
For example, the current method of starting a game is to kick the ball at least 10 metres. The kicking team then normally charge into their opponents who are static. This is a recipe for injury and altercation. A much safer way would be to start the game with a lineout or a serum on the halfway line.
Metal studs have been the cause of many injuries. They should be banned. A composite stud should be developed, and players should be required to wear them.
Head and shoulder injuries are very common. Players should be allowed to wear protective clothing, especially in the shoulder area. The development of a helmet along the (lines worn by some of the South African players in the last World Cup would also be a step in the right direction.
However, there is a long way to go from the situation that existed in American college football in 1905 when 18 players were killed. There was such a storm of protest that President Theodore Roosevelt told representatives of Yale, Harvard and Princeton that the brutality and foul play must be eliminated. The result was the legalisation of the forward pass and the appointment of a rules committee.
Rugby does not need a forward pass, and we have a Rules Committee called the International Board. The days when the results of an International Board weekend meeting on the laws of the game were to change a comma to a semi colon at the end of Rule 6 are over.
The future of the professional rugby game is now in the hands of the administration. Just like William Webb Ellis it has the ball in its hands and it needs to run with it.