Rugby’s sickness can be cured with just one law change

The game used to be for all body shapes, the IRB can bring that back


In a top level, 80-minute rugby match, the ball is in play for under 30 minutes. Of this all too short time, only momentary bursts of creative attacking play can be observed.

The constant “ying and yang” between attack and defense is once again out of balance in favour of the defence and as a result rugby is sick.

The illness can be observed in “one pass attacking rugby”.

From rugby league, rugby has learnt the importance of a fast-moving defensive line, sprinting up and denying the attacking team time and space. The result is the attacking teams have time for just one pass before a defender arrives and a tackle results. It takes much less skill to defend than attack.

All players require time and space to develop their attacking skills. Players under 20 years of age have played all their developing years without time and space. Their creative talents have not developed to the same level as past generations. The result is we are seeing more bash and bosh and less pass, run, support.

These factors have led to a very undesirable evolution of rugby becoming a game for giants. If you do not have the large body mass required for the bashing, it is difficult, if not impossible for players to succeed.

All body shapes
Historically, rugby has been for all body shapes. Without intervention from the IRB law makes those days are gone. Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll are hugely creative, athletic men, but they are regarded as small international centres. Neither man is small compared to the average person.

This means schoolboy players are spending more time lifting weights and less time becoming skilful. The prophecy is self-perpetuating. Players are becoming bigger, stronger but less skilful.

Another result of the ball being out of play for longer periods is that high aerobic fitness levels are not as important as in the past.

Rugby is becoming more like American Football which favours huge men playing in short bursts of activity.

The big men don’t need big lungs because there are longer periods of no play in which they recover.

To set modern scrums takes an average of three minutes. The giants of bash and bosh get their breath back while the paying supporters amuse themselves and the agile attacking players are marginalised.

To make up for the lack of player creativity coaches have bought into what I call the “the Brumby syndrome”. Some call it “sequences plays”. This is a pre-planned series of plays that was first introduced to great effect, by the Brumbies in the late 1990s.

They introduced this system to organise their team attack around the great creative minds of Steve Larkham, Joe Roff and George Gregan. Regrettably their thinking has unintentionally led to robotic players.

Over time the “Brumby way” has been bastardised into removing the creative decision making from players. Like American Football, players run in an attacking systems. No matter what you name it, the result is that many players now cannot think with out the coach doing the decision making for them.

The IRB could remedy these “illnesses” and create more entertaining rugby and skilled players, with one law change. Set all off side defensive lines at ten metres.

The defending team must be ten metres back from the scrum, lineout and the breakdown area.

Create space
I am not the first to call for this change. Nor is it the first time I have suggested it. However the more I watch the evolution of the game the more I see the need for laws to help create space, without reducing the number of players on the pitch.

Defending teams will have to make decisions on how many players to commit to the ruck. Commit too many and the defensive line is short manned.

Not enough and the attack will get fast ball. At junior levels the creative players will develop greater attacking skills by getting time on the ball.

The ten metre law would require two on field officials. I have supported this for some time. The main referee would be positioned at the tackle, ensuring legal play at the breakdown. The secondary referee would be on the defensive line enforcing teams to be onside.

As I have told you before, rugby league has this system for officiating. It has led to a reduction in penalties and increased the speed of the game.

Rugby could do with both of those outcomes.

Longer periods
These changes would create space between the attack and the defending line. While this law change does not solve the problem of time lost at the scrum formation, it will keep the ball in play for longer periods. With the speed of the game increased and the ball in play for longer period, players would require higher levels of aerobic fitness and carry less muscle bulk.

Teams would require athletic body shapes and the Jurassic Park goliaths will need to evolve or become extinct.

Rugby was designed to be an 80 minutes contest of skill for all body shapes. Let’s evolve rugby, so the game can return to the origins of its purpose.