How long is a rugby match, really?

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Following the 2011 Rugby World Cup played in New Zealand, the Games Analysis Unit of the IRB published a comprehensive report. The results surprised many as to how little rugby was actually being played while on the field.

That report indicated satisfaction with the fact that the time that the ball is actually in play has increased by 33% from that achieved during the 1995 Rugby World Cup to 35 minutes 25 seconds or 44% of the allotted 80 minutes of rugby game.

A comparison of the time the ball was in play for RWC 1991 to 2011 is shown below:

Rugby World Cup Time in play (of 80 minutes) Percentage time in play
1991 24 mins 48 seconds 31%
1995 26 mins 43 secs 33.4%
1999 30 mins 43 secs 38.4%
2003 33 mins 35 secs 42%
2007 35 mins 12 secs 44%
2011 35 mins 25 secs 44.3%

(Source IRB Report 2011)

While the increase from 1995 is significant, the fact that at the 2011 level the ball is in play for only 44% of the nominal 80 minutes of the game is not particularly impressive. There is obviously room for improvement.

Game spectators will probably be surprised how little of available playing time is actually used. This is because that as well as being an intense sporting contest for the players, rugby watching itself is an intense experience.

The obvious question the needs to be addressed is what happened during the 56% of time that the ball was not in play? This seems never to have been seriously addressed.

When the matter of the source of time loss has been discussed with colleagues the most frequent response has been that most of the time is lost at lineouts and scrums.

To address this particular issue a time analysis of the 2012 Super Rugby competition has been conducted. This analysis investigates not only how much time the ball is in play but also the extent and distribution of time loss while the ball is out of play.

The methodology used has been to assign each second of the duration of each game as either being “in play” or being accounted for in one of a number of categories of “time lost”.

Time in play” has been defined as any period during which one or more players is engaged in an activity that has the potential to result in a change to the score.

Playing time is lost in the following circumstances:

(a) – from when the referee orders a scrum until the instruction to “engage” is given:

(b) – while the ball is out of play and a lineout is being formed:

(c) – between when a referee orders a penalty and the non-offending team decides which option the team will take:

(d) – while a player is attempting a penalty shot at goal;

(e) – while a player is attempting a conversion following the scoring of a try:

(f) – while players are preparing to restart play following a goal attempt or from a play that requires a re-start from the “22”;

(g) – between when a referee orders a free kick and the non-offending team recommences play:

(h) -while the referee addresses players without signalling “time off”.

The competition average for each of the categories is shown below. (Time shown in minutes)

      Time lost

In play

Scrum

Lineout

Penalty

Pen. goal

Conversion

Dropout

Free kick

Referee

TOTAL

35.51

13.49

9.84

3.77

10.55

7.60

0.81

0.15

0.19

81.90

43.36%

16.47%

12.01%

4.60%

12.88%

9.28%

0.99%

0.18%

0.24%

The time lost at scrum time combined with that when kicks at goal are being taken exceeds the time the ball is in play by a little more than three minutes.

The law makers understandably focus their attention on what happens while the ball is in play. In the search for an increase in exciting activity, adjustments to the laws are made in the expectation that they will result in more attractive.

It is time to examine when the ball is not in play in greater depth and to make adjustments to the rules to increase the time that the ball is in play.

On the basis of a more detailed analysis carried out it is possible, without making major changes to the way the game is played, to provide a net increase of about 8.5 minutes of additional playing time to the average game.

This would take the average time that the ball is in play to about 44 minutes or 55% of the nominal 80 minutes specified in the laws of the game.

A comprehensive report and full data analysis is available below:
- Complete Essay
- Time loss summary – Super Rugby

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