Isn’t it curious that rugby union still gets a crowd? In top-class game, there are less than 30 minutes ball-in-play time out of the 80 minutes available.
These days, there are more penalties than tries and many top games are determined by penalties.
However, it is worth noting that the recent rugby-union Test between Australia and Wales attracted just 34,000 in sports-mad Melbourne.
This was at a stadium that holds 56,000 and the atmosphere was lukewarm at best.
There were nine penalties and just three tries.
By contrast, the National Rugby League State of Origin match completely filled the same stadium one month earlier with great atmosphere.
Queensland beat NSW three tries to two, with zero penalty goals.
Could it be that the sporting public are less prepared to support a game that is dominated by penalties and obscure breakdown play and relatively little ball running and open play?
As a lifelong rugby player and referee, with 50 years’ experience on the field in eight countries, I feel qualified to say that the ‘running game’ has lost its way.
It is now a kicking game, with penalties dominating and determining the results of many top-class games.
To illustrate, over the past weekend the penalties-tries ratio has been in favour of the former.
The ratio was 9:3 in the Australia-Wales game; in the New Zealand-Ireland match, it was 8:2.
In the South Africa-England fixture, it was only 5:7.
As a whole, there were 22 penalties scored over the weekend for 12 tries.
Why is it that some games are monotonous and frankly boring, while others produce more of what pleases the crowd?
That is, open-running rugby and tries though still with a heavy overlay of penalties.
The reason is that the scoring system is biased towards penalties.
Two penalties kicked are worth six points, while a try is only worth five – or seven with a possible conversion.
The solution is to increase the value of a try, relative to the penalty.
To make a real difference – to signal that the game is more about scoring tries than winning penalties – the value of the penalty could be dropped to two points.
The field goal would also drop to two points.
There is logic behind this.
Modern international teams are much bigger, stronger, fitter and better conditioned than those of yesteryear.
With up to seven substitutes, on top of 15 starters, it is hard to exhaust one’s opponents.
With limited commitment of forwards to the ‘ruck’ – which has virtually been eliminated from the game by current law interpretations – defences are very difficult to penetrate.
Finally, the modern ball is synthetic and does not absorb water to gain weight.
It can be kicked from a tee, over the crossbar and from anywhere within 50 – 60 metres.
It is much easier to kick penalties than score tries.
In closely matched games, teams opt for this as a deliberate strategy.
But nobody in the crowd prefers penalty kicks to tries.
Few prefer to watch a scrabble between the forwards, with repetitive ‘pick and go’ or ‘drive and dive’ until the penalty is awarded.
The simplest solution is to reward tries more or penalties less, while dealing with persistent infringement by the sin bin.
Reducing the value of the penalty kick (and the field goal) would re-align rugby union towards running play and try scoring.
This would surely be an improvement for everyone involved in the game.