Six Nations: New regulations lead to slight increase in ball in play time - is it enough?

Wales vs Ireland sees three minutes more action than the corresponding fixture last year

Statisticians are a canny bunch. They have been showing up sports for what they are in recent years, prompting rugby to take a closer look at how long the ball is in play.

Other team sports including soccer have been doing this too, with the results highlighting that for large swathes during a game, of football or rugby, the match ball is the most idle piece of kit on the park.

Over the weekend, rugby applied new measures that had been introduced at the beginning of the year by World Rugby to help pack more action into the bundle of 80 minutes.

They included time limits set for kicking penalties and conversions and putting a stop to players wandering off with the ball in their hands to prevent the opposition from setting up quickly.


The Six Nations was the first Test match tournament in the northern hemisphere in which the new law applications were applied.

In the game between Wales and Ireland at the Principality Stadium, Ireland held possession of the ball for 20 minutes 31 seconds and Wales did so for 18 minutes 43 seconds.

That gives the two teams a combined possession of 39 minutes and 14 seconds, exposing the myth of the 80-minute rugby match – a fallacy.

In a Six Nations match in 2017 between France and Wales, the report for the game came under the headline: “France stun Wales by snatching win amid 100th-minute madness.”

It went on to describe “extraordinary scenes” while “chaos and insanity reigned.” A full 20 minutes after the 80 was up, France finally barged their way to victory with a try by Damien Chouly after referee Wayne Barnes had become embroiled in conversation after conversation with captains, coaches and officials to check the probity of what was going on.

One person Tweeted: “The year is 2020. Britain has left the EU, Scotland has left the UK, the Welsh are still in a scrummage in France,” while Wales Online ran a story under the extended headlines: “The story of the farcical 100-minute France v Wales match that left Rob Howley fuming like never before.”

“It was a chaotic game that spilled over into bitter allegations and an investigation by Six Nations chiefs.”

How much game time is played is an old chestnut. In the corresponding fixture between Ireland and Wales last year in the Aviva stadium, the ball-in-play time was a fraction over 36 minutes, roughly three minutes less than Saturday.

Other matches in this year’s first round varied. In the game between France and Italy in Stadio Olimpico, Italy had the ball for 20 minutes 29 seconds and France held it for 15 minutes 47 seconds for a combined possession of 36 minutes and 16 seconds.

England’s match against Scotland in the Calcutta Cup was the best of the three games of the first weekend in terms of keeping the ball alive.

Scotland had possession for 17 minutes 23 seconds and England held the ball for 23 minutes 16 seconds for a total of 40 minutes and 39 seconds, the only one of the three that had the ball in play for more than half of the match.

It is not just rugby that has become fixated. According to Opta Analyst, in a recent goalless draw between Premiership sides Arsenal and Newcastle United, the ball remained in play for just 51 minutes and 23 seconds, or a little over half a match.

Including added time in both halves, the match lasted 98 minutes and 48 seconds, which is above the Premier League average for 2022-23 of 98 minutes seven seconds. But the ball was in play for just 52 per cent of that time, which is below the 2022-23 Premier League average of 55.9 per cent and 54 minutes and 49 seconds.

Premier League matches this season have ranged from 43 minutes 26 seconds for the game involving Aston Villa and Brentford in October to 68 minutes seven seconds for Manchester City’s 4-0 win over Southampton, also in October, which is a difference of nearly 25 minutes.

The experience of watching a rugby match is obviously more than all action, all the time. The question is whether a few minutes saved here and there is what World Rugby are trying to achieve or is more dramatic remedial work required.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times