Matt Williams: Scrum stoppages turning rugby into a boring spectacle
Complex laws are stripping away sport’s core belief of running with ball in hand
A scrum is disrupted during Ireland’s win over Georgia. Photo: Gary Carr/Inpho
Like the rest of humanity, all is not well in the rugby world. The game is ill.
Rugby is slowly being poisoned by a litany of antiquated and complex laws that have stripped the game of its core belief.
That is: to get the ball in your hand and run.
Over the past few weeks greats of the game, such as former Scottish captain Andy Nichol, the brilliant Welsh wizard Jonathan Davies and former England captain Will Carling, have joined a worldwide chorus of former players and rugby luminaries in lamenting the state of how the game is being played.
Last week’s dire match between Ireland and Georgia was only surpassed by the horror of the black Irish jersey.
Perhaps the black was to display mourning for the performance at Twickenham when the Irish players ran into English tacklers over 200 times.
That takes some doing.
The Scots are not much better. Against Italy, on every single instance that the Italians kicked to Stuart Hogg who is a brilliant attacking fullback, he kicked the ball straight back.
Not once did he run and counter attack.
This is because a wall of charging defenders, which every team across the globe has constructed, is frustrating great attackers like Hogg into endless kicking. Since the Rugby World Cup in 2019, international teams that kick the most generally win.
This style of rugby that we are witnessing is exceptionally boring.
Scrums continue to steal disproportionately huge chunks of the precious minutes in every match as they each take up to three minutes to set.
In last week’s Test between Argentina and New Zealand, a scrum was awarded to New Zealand in the 75th minute. Reset after reset followed and that series of scrums was still going as the clock was about to turn red at the 80-minute mark.
Added to this is the endless stoppages for the referee to talk to captains, TMOs, assistant referees, big screens and front rowers who have never and will never listen to anything a referee says. I was throwing rolled up socks at the TV, it was so frustrating.
In this generation, there are so few moments of beautiful attacking inspirational play because there is no time and space for the attack to work in. The current laws are empowering defenders and weakening attackers.
The responsibility for the current state of affairs sits firmly in the lap of World Rugby’s lawmakers. For more than a decade the governing body has tinkered and manipulated many of the laws. Now, under the law of unintended consequences, they have created a Frankenstein. Bits and pieces of stitched-together compromised laws which have altered rugby into a defensive bash fest with scrums, penalties and mauls.
This was never the intention, but it is the result.
Almost all the games played in the Autumn Nations Cup have been tediously repetitive because rugby’s overly complicated laws are a “dog’s body” of technical infringements that force referees to blow stoppages every few seconds. There are far too many penalties which results in too many attempts at penalty goals and seemingly endless second half disruptions for player substitutions.
The wonderful glow of X-factor rugby, sparked by spontaneous running attacks, was the cause of all of us standing and cheering for the Georgian centre Giorgi Kveseladze as he swerved and weaved, running 50 metres to score his excellent try against Ireland last week.
Audiences want to see the ball move across the field and players running with the ball in hand, not endless tackling.
Rugby’s laws now unfairly empower the defenders to take away an unequal amount of time and space from the attack. It is so far out of kilter that the attack is no longer capable of functioning as it has in the past.
The root cause of the imbalance towards defence started years ago when the lawmakers removed the right of players to use their feet to “ruck” the ball. Overnight, defenders stopped joining the ruck and joined the defensive line. In stopping rucking, the lawmakers unintentionally moved the defensive offside line three metres closer to the attackers because, with no defenders in the ruck, its size was halved.
Ball in hand
We need the lawmakers to step up, show leadership and use the laws to add balance to the game so that attackers have more time with the ball in hand before they meet a defender.
The complexities of using the laws to create space are confronting, but not impossible. However, many of World Rugby’s lawmakers do not want to make the obvious change, which is to move the defensive line five or more metres back from the ruck because, the theory goes, “rugby will look too much like Rugby League.”
Today’s rugby has single attackers running off the scrumhalf and then getting bashed. Every team is playing the exact same attack plan and all have a single line of rushing, gang-tackling defenders. That sounds pretty close to Rugby League to me.
The sad difference is Rugby League can often pass the ball wide. Today’s rugby cannot because it is almost impossible for attacks to get the time and space to string together three passes.
Those whose role is to market rugby and attempt to sell the game to sponsors and media companies for TV rights must be watching the boredom and repartition of the games with horror. Their dilemma can be summed up in the descriptive and accurate colloquial phrase: “it’s hard to polish a turd.”