How long is a rugby match, really?

Maroon1959 Roar Rookie

By Maroon1959, Maroon1959 is a Roar Rookie


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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




    Pen. goal



    Free kick






















    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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    The Crowd Says (44)

    • Editor

      September 4th 2012 @ 11:31am
      Tristan Rayner said | September 4th 2012 @ 11:31am | ! Report

      This analysis from Maroon1959 is very interesting, and I’d encourage anyone more interested to read the detailed essay.

      My take from this is that there appears to be two obvious areas to ‘gain’ time (or at least prevent it being lost)

      – Time off during penalty goal attempts and conversions (saving some 12.88+9.28 which we can say is around 21% more game being played)
      – Similar to the NRL, if one set of forwards rushes to pack a scrum, time is blown off – may save 5+%
      – Time off until the lineout is set and ready and the hooker is ready to throw – may save ~5%

      The theory here says that this allows 30% more game play – however, I’d be interested in what the repercussions for changing the game in this way might be. Tristan (Ed.)

      • September 4th 2012 @ 11:46am
        Pogo said | September 4th 2012 @ 11:46am | ! Report

        See I take a different view, rather than stopping the clock I think if one team is ready for the scrum or lineout after x amount of time and the other isn’t then you blow a free kick. Teams will be running to the scrums and lineouts like nobody’s business.

        • September 4th 2012 @ 1:07pm
          klestical said | September 4th 2012 @ 1:07pm | ! Report

          I agree with this sentiment, however with slight variation. I wrote an earlier article about a year ago about the IRB introducing a ‘scrum clock’ – where upon the moment of infringement, a 15/20 second scrum clock is set, where the scrum has to be set within the time limit.

          Obviously there are dangers here (players are not aligned correctly) however this could be fixed if the IRB gets rid of the ‘hit’ in the scrum and allows it instead to ‘come together’ like the scrums from yesteryear. Safer and faster with less collapsing.

        • September 4th 2012 @ 6:54pm
          Mark Roth said | September 4th 2012 @ 6:54pm | ! Report

          Agreed. I recently saw a test match from the 1906s (or somewhere close to that time) and either the match was edited or players were almost instantly packing down for a scrum. It seemed that they were ready to engage even before the referee arrived. No need for the ref to even be there really. They just packed and then the ball was put in and play on.

          • September 5th 2012 @ 2:07am
            Bakkies said | September 5th 2012 @ 2:07am | ! Report

            The scrum these days is more than just a restart. It’s used as a tool to launch an attack, too take advantage of a weak pack, change the point of attack by shoving them sideways or backwards. There is more to the modern scrum than just putting the ball in and waiting for it too come out. It took the Wallabies years to work this one out.

    • September 4th 2012 @ 11:42am
      Pogo said | September 4th 2012 @ 11:42am | ! Report

      1) “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.” Why aim for 55%? Has this been identified as the most exciting amount of ball playing time?

      2) More time in play does sound like a good idea but may not in fact result in more excitement. For instance if all of that time is spent hitting it up one off the ruck.

      3) There will always be some time when the ball is not in play, but I suppose we could shear a bit off by limiting stoppage time in much the same way that kicks at goal are limited to 90 seconds under the rules being trialled at the moment.

      4) For crying out loud, nobody suggest that the clock be stopped every time play stops. This will not make the game faster, but slower and longer. Just because the stoppages aren’t timed doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have to watch them.

      • Editor

        September 4th 2012 @ 11:54am
        Tristan Rayner said | September 4th 2012 @ 11:54am | ! Report

        1) I think this is just an improvement without fundamental changes

        2) Unintended consequences would be very interesting

        3) Makes sense

        4) I like your point above that you limit the time and then blow a free kick, or march the scrum/lineout 10 metres after x seconds.

        • September 4th 2012 @ 11:58am
          Red Kev said | September 4th 2012 @ 11:58am | ! Report

          I like idea 4 – 60s and still not ready at scrum/lineout – walk the set piece 10m in the direction of the offending team.

          • September 4th 2012 @ 12:56pm
            Ian Whitchurch said | September 4th 2012 @ 12:56pm | ! Report

            One point to remember is that the time spent waiting around for a kick to be taken, a lineout to happen or a scrum to set is used by players to get their breath back.

            If you made a rugby union game 80 minutes of actual play, then a lot of the fat props and so on will need to hit the gym and get rebuilt for the new conditions.

            • September 4th 2012 @ 1:01pm
              Red Kev said | September 4th 2012 @ 1:01pm | ! Report

              And as one of those fat props I do appreciate that, but the way TPN and many others go down on their back or one knee every time the whistle goes should be stamped out of the game.

            • September 4th 2012 @ 1:33pm
              soapit said | September 4th 2012 @ 1:33pm | ! Report

              dont tell me this is another SH conspiracy to depower the scrum! it’ll never get up now.

            • September 5th 2012 @ 2:14am
              Bakkies said | September 5th 2012 @ 2:14am | ! Report

              and Eddie 12 subs will pipe up again. Leave the game as it is.

      • September 5th 2012 @ 2:13am
        Bakkies said | September 5th 2012 @ 2:13am | ! Report

        I am not sure why we need all this analysis. More ball in play time will lead to players going down to slow the game, more infringements, probably more kicking duels, headless chook rugby. Rugby is about getting ready for the next phase of the game. That’s why there is time used up.

        American Football has bugger all football over an hour (game time 60 minutes) and it takes them three hours to complete the game. Rugby is nowhere near that and we don’t hear about American Football changing their rules to encourage ”ball in play.” Their game is about building and completing the play. Rugby is more continuous but it has to be static at times for the play to restart.

    • September 4th 2012 @ 11:52am
      Red Kev said | September 4th 2012 @ 11:52am | ! Report

      That is very interesting reading.
      Taking time off for kicks / scrums / penalties would substantially increase the length of a match and I am not sure it would be feasible from a telecast scheduling perspective.
      I am surprised by how much time (20%) is lost to kicks at goal. Putting the timer on the kicker (is it 60s or 90s from award of kick to strike the ball) under the new laws should help.
      Similarly with scrums and lineouts – stopping the players “going down” for injury time or a drink everytime the whistle goes would help. Realistically though the IRB needs to change the scrum engage to really sort this out – watching 1990s scrums is a wake up call in speed of packing (would reduce the time down to 10-12% in line with lineouts in my opinion). Giving the referee the power to award a short arm penalty for “time wasting” at set piece time would help too. Perhaps allowing the short arm to be kicked out on the full for a lineout to the opposition would reduce the times the scrum option is taken too.
      They need to aim for 50% ball in play I reckon.

    • September 4th 2012 @ 12:23pm
      atlas said | September 4th 2012 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

      “the length of time the ball was in play on Saturday night. In the second half, it was live for 21 minutes. That’s almost five minutes more than the Wallabies have been used to in 2012”
      Paul Cully –

      almost as long as an entire 1991-era match according to above stats. unfortunately did not provide mins for 1st half.

    • September 4th 2012 @ 12:41pm
      Sailosi said | September 4th 2012 @ 12:41pm | ! Report

      The ball in play in an NFL match is about 4 minutes. Who cares?

      I’m sick of going to a day of test cricket. It’s not a day it’s from 11-6, I want them to play from 7am-7pm.

      Comment left via The Roar’s iPhone app. Download The Roar’s iPhone App in the App Store here.

      • September 4th 2012 @ 12:54pm
        Ian Whitchurch said | September 4th 2012 @ 12:54pm | ! Report


        On that one, I’d be happy to simply say ‘Play shall start when the umpires are of the opinion that conditions, including by the use of artificial illuminiation, are fit for play. Play shall finish when the umpires are of the opinion that conditions are not fit for play. Play not to begin sooner than 8am, nor finish later than 8pm, without the consent of both captains’.

        • September 4th 2012 @ 1:45pm
          josh said | September 4th 2012 @ 1:45pm | ! Report

          Don’t leave to the umpires. They’ll have their light meters out at any sign of cloud cover.

          I don’t get why international cricket has become so precious. Surely they all remember playing club cricket till 6pm in poor light.

    • September 4th 2012 @ 12:48pm
      soapit said | September 4th 2012 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

      they should be able to do time off for kicks at goal and conversions with minimal adjustment and that would clearly make a big difference.

      one downside could be tv broadcast though as it might be difficult to predict when the game will finish and so when to schedule the following game.