Much of the rugby world is glowing in the warm light of a creative renaissance where many of the leading teams are attempting to play high-tempo, entertaining rugby. Ireland have been both a leader and beneficiary of this renaissance.
Last season, three matches at the Aviva were perfect examples of the positive mindset that has gripped the rugby world. Ireland’s defeat of France, the Champions Cup final and Munster’s win against Leinster were festivals of rugby that produced spectacular entertainment.
The main reason that Ireland’s match against France was the most outstanding of the season was that it produced the highest “ball in play” time of the Six Nations. BIP is the acronym that describes the amount of time the ball is in play. The more BIP time, the more entertainment there is for spectators and the more enjoyable for players.
With a BIP of 46 minutes and 10 seconds, Ireland’s win over France was an enjoyable aberration because the average BIP for the last Six Nations was 38 minutes and 3 seconds. If we turn that on its head, during the average Six Nations match nothing was happening for 41 minutes and 57 seconds.
That is like going to the cinema to watch a movie and the screens are blank for more than half of the show.
In the NRL, the Australian Rugby League, the average BIP time is 59 minutes. That means some games have a BIP of close to 70 minutes.
World Rugby needs to support the renaissance by setting a target of a 60 minutes average of BIP for all senior club and international matches. As the BIP for the Wallabies game against the Springboks last year was a humiliating 28 minutes, the distance our game has to travel is massive.
The responsibility and solution to these disgracefully low BIP times sit solely with rugby’s legislature and match officials.
Recently there have been some hard-fought concessions to increase BIP time through the persistent fighting of the long-suffering reformists within World Rugby. The new requirement that scrums be formed within 30 seconds was a major victory. But World Rugby is not fighting with the required tenacity to reclaim the many minutes of lost playing time from the game.
Here we should remember that the laws of rugby force teams to accumulate points by two major routes. Either by scoring tries or kicking penalty goals. The process of scoring tries adds BIP time into games, while a shot at penalty goal steals time from matches.
Put simply, World Rugby should aim to increase the number of tries being scored and reduce the number of attempted penalty goals.
To encourage teams to score tries and create more BIP time we must change the incentives. By awarding only two points for penalty goals and increasing the value of tries to six or even seven points, teams would be radically incentivised to score tries. This must be done in tandem with the overdue reform to the scrum laws, that now create long stoppages and penalties which remain the root cause of the majority of lost BIP time from games.
I have documented many times that changes across the years have destroyed the excellent scrum laws of the 1980s when all technical scrum infringements were sanctioned with free kicks and not penalties. The old laws incentivised teams to liberate the ball from the scrum and attempt to score tries.
Today, a high percentage of scrums result in penalties that lead to time-wasting shots at penalty goals. It must also be said that many of these penalties come from highly questionable technical decisions by officials.
Added to this scourge is that almost every pack is now pushing with the intent of physically destroying their opposition to gain a penalty. After living through the horror of witnessing a life-changing spinal injury from a scrum accident at my club in the 1980s, I never thought I would have to say this again in my lifetime, but scrums are returning to levels of physical danger to our players. No penalty is worth a broken spinal column. World Rugby must take action.
In a recent podcast covering Australian Rugby League, the advances in artificial intelligence (AI) to replace human officials in sport were discussed. It was suggested that as close as one World Cup cycle into the future, AI will be capable of replacing TMOs and assistant referees in communicating with the on-field referee. AI may even soon have the ability to tell the referee whether they should or should not blow their whistle.
If AI can provide far more accurate and consistent rulings on all matters including defensive offside, high tackles, entry into rucks and getting it right every time consistently across every match, the long-term result will be a reduction in penalties because coaches will force players to adapt.
The average number of penalties in a match varies but it is about 25. World Rugby should be fighting to halve this number. If AI can achieve this, it should be welcomed as quickly as humanly or inhumanly possible into our game.
If all of this and much more was properly addressed by World Rugby then they would be enhancing the renaissance of positive play in our game.
Then again I hope for peace for the Palestinian people, for China to stop repressing their Uighur minority, for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine and for Donald Trump to admit he lost the 2020 election.
All of these seem to have a higher chance of becoming a reality than our rugby legislature working to create an average BIP time of 60 minutes for us all to enjoy.