The tectonic plates of world rugby union are shifting. A crowd of barely 14,000 watched Australia's home test match at the weekend. Back in Europe a bigger attendance saw the Pro12 game between Leinster and Scarlets at the RDS on the same day. In England, the salary cap is being raised again amid renewed debate over how best to maximise the club game. The All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen, whose side lead the way in terms of their mastery of the sport's finer details, reckons it is time to "rip the rule-book up" and start again.
There is more. Among the Sanzar nations in the southern hemisphere there are plans to trial a referral system – à la cricket or tennis – from 2016, on top of a raft of experiments with the scoring system in the Australian national championship. Add in France's selection of the England international Steffon Armitage, not to mention the South African-reared scrum-half Rory Kockott and the Australian Brock James in an extended squad and there is much for the International Rugby Board – which is about to rebrand itself as World Rugby – to think about.
This global state of flux is unlikely to settle down in the foreseeable future. The entry of sevens at the Rio Olympics will tug more strongly at the game’s seams, as will the start of a revised European club competition this autumn. The English Premiership salary cap is set to allow for a second “marquee player” from overseas next season, placing a strain on clubs whose spending does not reach the current ceiling.
It is all symptomatic of the same thing: union’s impatience for growth, on and off the field, at a crucial stage of the professional game’s development. Senior officials from the bigger English clubs are already openly speculating that a strong, combined British and Irish league, pitting Leinster, Munster and Ulster – for instance – against Leicester, Saracens and Northampton on a more regular basis, could evolve in the not-too-distant future. One suggestion is to have 24 elite teams split into two divisions of 12 apiece (four Irish, four Welsh, two Scots and 14 English) with two up, two down promotion/relegation between the two each season. Better attended – and potentially fewer – games are being sought by administrators and players’ union officials.
That, in turn, may allow the league to be played in one block followed by the Six Nations, with Europe played in April and May, possibly as a knockout event. Standing still does not seem to be an option. Not in Australia, at any rate. That attendance of 14,281 for the Australia v Argentina game on the Gold Coast will concentrate minds down under: if test rugby is to remain the pinnacle of the sport, it has to feel like it for those in the stadium.
The urgent scramble to put more bums on seats explains the latest series of trials in Australia's National Rugby Championship, including reducing the value of penalties and drop-goals to two points and increasing the value of a conversion to three. A time limit of 30 seconds to set a scrum has been introduced, the defending half-back cannot enter the "pocket" between the opposing flanker and number eight at a scrum and a team gets a bonus point for finishing three or more tries ahead of their opponents, rather than for simply scoring four tries.
It is too early to assess whether these are positive innovations but making the game less stop-start and reaching out to new audiences are worthy ambitions.
The same reasoning lies behind the proposed referrals, potentially up to three per side per game. That feels like too many, as the Wallaby’s coach, Ewen McKenzie, has pointed out. “If you challenge the call and get it right you can challenge again and theoretically you could have 20 challenges,” he warned. Better, perhaps, to have one per team per game for use in the event of an absolute howler.
Hansen, for his part, thinks the law-book needs a strimmer taken to it. “The game is difficult to ref. If I was allowed to do one thing in the game I’d rip the rulebook up, write another one and just put in the rules that are necessary,” he said last week. “We have so many laws. If you read the rulebook there is clause 5:A, 2:C and then you read it and it doesn’t even sound like English. It is a difficult game and the people who suffer the most are the people in the middle.” As McKenzie added: “I think there are about 50 different ways you can get penalised just at the scrum.”
Their concern is valid but chess is complicated, too, and no one suggests altering its rules on an annual basis: there is way too much subjectivity floating around. What suits the southern hemisphere does not necessarily float the north’s boat and vice versa.
Which merely increases the need for strong, wise leadership from the International Rugby Board. The IRB's chief executive, Brett Gosper, spoke of "positive growing pains" this week and re-emphasised that the world body is governed by its member unions. True enough but players, officials and supporters increasingly want clarity, not endless tinkering and conjecture. If the global game cannot collectively agree how best to proceed, those "growing pains" could become seriously painful. Guardian Service