Matt Williams: Rugby in desperate need of a major overhaul to its antiquated laws

First Lions Test the perfect example of the negative blight now ruining the game

 The  Lions celebrate after their victory during the first Test. Warren Gatland’s tactics won the game because he did the seemingly impossible and created a game plan that was even more negative than the Springboks’. Photograph:  David Rogers/Getty Images

The Lions celebrate after their victory during the first Test. Warren Gatland’s tactics won the game because he did the seemingly impossible and created a game plan that was even more negative than the Springboks’. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

During July, elite rugby players of all shapes, sizes, creeds, beliefs, skin colours and cultures showcased their talented obsession for chasing an inflated elliptical shaped piece of plastic around a grassed rectangle of dirt.

It was all quite wonderfully mad.

The vast spectrum of rugby’s culturally diverse family was splashed across the days of July. As the world’s men’s and women’s Sevens teams assembled in Tokyo to compete under the unity of the Olympic Rings, the Argentinian Pumas were competing in Celtic Wales, the French played in Australia and the Fijians, Samoans and Tongans were in New Zealand.

With Ireland, America, Canada, Scotland, Japan, Korea and Kenya all competing, July has been a heady concoction of rugby’s egalitarian spirit.

In the depths of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, when you could not go into a pub to order a pint and the Pope stopped receiving visitors, games of rugby continued.

Those administrators responsible for all these games being safely played, take a bow. That is a truly remarkable achievement.

As the games in July gave the rugby community so much to admire, praise and be proud of, it also sadly highlighted how a tsunami of negative tactics are now part of the vast majority of games.

This is because there is a raft of laws within rugby that are no longer fit for purpose. These outmoded laws are providing strategic loopholes for coaches to use negative tactics to stifle running rugby, simply because the laws are empowering negative play.

After last week’s first Test in South Africa, I spoke to a former Lion who rightly described the match as “turgid”.

While the dying moments were dramatic, the game was the perfect example of how rugby’s outdated laws empower coaches to use the highly negative tactics of box kicking, mauling and scrummaging for penalties. With almost zero backline attacks, backs are now predominantly players who chase kicks and tackle.

Maro Itoje carries into Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth during the Lions’ first Test win in Cape Town. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty
Maro Itoje carries into Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth during the Lions’ first Test win in Cape Town. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty

Warren Gatland’s tactics won the game because he did the seemingly impossible and created a game plan that was even more negative than the Springboks. In the race to the bottom of the negative tactics pool, the Lions won by a claw.

In reality, the coaches are blameless. Their job is to win.

While the current laws of rugby force the use of negative tactics on both the Lions and the Springboks, they also robbed the world of the opportunity to witness the attacking brilliance of Cheslin Kolbe, Stuart Hogg, Makazole Mapimpi and Anthony Watson.

The only try-scoring event of the first Test match, as it is in far too many matches, was a driving maul.

Maro Itoje “jackaling” the ball in a tackle was technically superior but rugby was designed for more brilliance than standing still, bending your knees and grabbing the ball.

Rugby’s current blight was the blight of the first Test. A huge number of aimless kicks from both teams, ridiculous chunks of game time wasted with exactly nothing happening, as the forwards stood about, refusing to form scrum after tedious scrum.

Add in the long delays that are sadly now part of every match, as replacements spluttered onto the pitch and the match officials endlessly stopped play to talk to each other.

Running rugby

What was missing from the first Lions Test and so many other games is rugby’s unique selling point. Rugby is different from every other ball sport because it is the only game on the planet where you have to run forward and pass the ball backwards.

It is the players running with the ball in their hand and passing to a teammate that is not only unique, it is also a joy to behold. Running rugby has a magic that mesmerises people. Words fail to adequately describe the exhilaration it creates and, much more importantly for the future of the game, running rugby can be monetised. Running the ball is sexy and fun. Parents want their kids to play it and advertisers and sponsors will pay for it.

If the future of rugby is represented by the first Lions Test, then our beautiful game is gravely ill and in desperate need of a major overhaul to its antiquated laws.

Rugby supporters have longed for the day when World Rugby would begin the overdue reforms to the laws that we can all see are required. So a few weeks ago, when World Rugby announced the new law changes for 2021-22 the rugby community was hopeful. The changes since announced were so inconsequential I will not even bother to list them. Rugby people across the globe were stupefied at the lack of meaningful law changes.

There was nothing to reduce the endless mauls and box kicks. Zero on the huge amount of time-wasting at scrums and goal kicks. Nothing to enhance the current imbalance and advantages that defenders have over the attackers. Nothing to reduce referees’ non-stop, needless talking.

In not acting to restoring the much-needed balance between attack and defence, World Rugby’s legislators continue to punish players who want to do what the young William Webb Ellis did. That is to pick the ball up and have a reasonable amount of time and space to catch the ball, run with it, then pass it. This is every player’s birthright and the pure essence of the game which is now under threat.

Whether it is competing at the Olympic Games or ensuring a Lions tour in a pandemic, when rugby puts its substantial, collective will behind a project there is almost nothing the game cannot achieve. And there is your answer. Rugby’s legislative elite simply do not have the collective political will for essential internal reform.

Rugby is in desperate need of administrative champions who will be able to pursue the relentless simplification of the labyrinth of obsolete laws that have been left untouched for decades because rugby’s current crop of politicians simply don’t have the political balls to make the hard calls required to do what the entire rugby community knows is urgently needed.

South Africa’s left wing Makazole Mapimpi challenges with Ali Price and Anthony Watson. Photograph: Phil Magakoe/Getty/AFP
South Africa’s left wing Makazole Mapimpi challenges with Ali Price and Anthony Watson. Photograph: Phil Magakoe/Getty/AFP

PS If World Rugby’s officials had seen Rassie Erasmus’s video privately, it would be just another tough talk with a coach. Conversations like this happen face to face, at most Test matches. Rassie was justified to cite the three exceptionally dangerous pieces of play by the Lions that all required cards and went unpunished.

In publicly releasing the video Rassie crossed a line.

Like all in rugby, Rassie is frustrated at World Rugby’s decades-long refusal to meaningfully reform officiating. Our referees are failing because they are required to judge an impossible number of situations far too quickly.

Rassie has shed some light on rugby’s officiating problems. Whether he has damaged the game and his own career at the same time remains to be seen.

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