How to fix the scourge of rugby penalty fests

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Super Rugby is suffering from inconsistent refereeing. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

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Ok, look. We’ve all had enough, haven’t we? We who adore rugby union are fed up to the back teeth with games which fail to reach their full potential because of the penalty-goal scourge.

The last Bledisloe clash was a gripping, absorbing contest, full of drama and heroics, but it had no tries at all. Six penalty goals each, 18-18.

That’s not even unusual – penalties are the preferred mode of scoring nowadays, and the rules are not calculated to enrich our lives or bless us with more of what we really love about the game.

So it’s time to fix it. You’re lucky I’m around.

There are two basic problems behind the penalty goal glut: the attacking team and the defending team.

An attacking team will always go for the penalty goal when it’s available. Penalties are worth three points, so you can potentially wipe out the value of a try just by edging into opposition territory and knocking over two kicks.

Most top level teams have a quality goalkicker, so why would they risk a failed raid on the tryline when they could take three points from pretty much anywhere in the opposition half – and sometimes even further?

On the flip-side, defenders are happy enough to give away penalties to avoid conceding a try.

When desperately defending your own line, with massive muscular men charging low and hard at you, it’s a lot easier to give three points away, get yourself a breather, and get back to halfway for a reboot, than trust to your own legal tackling ability to prevent a five or seven pointer.

Penalty goals are too easy to take as a scoring option, and too easy to concede as the lesser of two evils.

So here is my Special All New Excellent Plan for Breaking the Penalty’s Stranglehold, or SANEPFBTPS for short.

1. Reduce the value of all goals to two points.

There would be an argument for cutting it to one, but in the interests of a) baby steps and b) deterrence, let’s keep it to two for now.

There will still be an incentive to take a shot when you get the chance, but you’ll need three goals to overcome a try, and four to overcome a converted try. The penalty goal would become less attractive.

2. All goal attempts must be drop-goals.

Increase the difficulty level a little. If the kicker isn’t as confident of knocking it over, teams will be more reluctant to take shots at goal from penalties.

3. Here’s the big one. Penalty goals should only be kickable within the opposition 22.

This has two effects. Firstly, it means that teams can’t engage in the cop out of going for long range shots instead of pushing closer to the line for a try. This reduces the probability of the game deteriorating into a shootout between sniping goal-kickers.

Secondly, it takes a leaf out of football’s book by making it clear that the worst offence is that which is cynically committed to shut down a try-scoring opportunity. And on that note…

4. Change the rules for restarts following penalty goal attempts by specifying that after each shot at goal, whether the kick is successful or not, the defending team must restart play with a dropout from the goal-line.

This takes away one of the incentives to infringe within your own 22: the thought of respite by taking the ball back to halfway.

This way, giving away a professional foul may result in both the concession of points, AND the prospect of the opposition immediately storming back at your line.

This is a harsh punishment, but it’s designed to stamp out the scourge of deliberate infringement, which stymies attacking play. And to back that up…

5. Mandatory sentencing.

If a player gives away two consecutive penalties within his own 22, he gets a yellow card.

If a team gives away three consecutive penalties within its own 22, the captain gets a yellow card. No exceptions.

If it keeps happening, keep yellowing. When a team is forced to defend with ten men, maybe players will get the message. We want to see attack versus defence, not attack versus ball-killing.

So there you have it. My plan reduces the incentive for teams to “roll over halfway and play for a penalty”, and increases the incentive to stay within the rules when defending your own line.

Penalty goals will no longer be the dominant scoring method in rugby. Teams will attempt to score more tries, and they’ll be more reluctant to illegally prevent tries. Peace and joy will reign. Hooray!

Or, as a certain ex-Wallaby suggested after hearing my plan, we could just increase the value of tries to ten points.

What would you do?

Ben Pobjie is a writer & comedian writing on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys watching Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms.
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