As the clock ticked towards the hour mark of the final and as Handre Pollard lined up another penalty goal the murmurings turned into a discordant grumble.
Watching among friends who wouldn’t rate rugby among their preferred sports, England and South Africa’s physicality and defensive prowess provided a spectacle for the purists but not one that would win the hearts and minds of the unconverted.
World Cup finals often prove to be tense affairs. With so much on the line, teams turn to attritional, conservative rugby, relying on penalty goals and territory, waiting patiently for the opposition to make a mistake. Tries are rare and often come late in the game. This equation was exemplified during last night’s match.
To their credit, Eddie Jones and Rassie Erasmus have constructed physical, resilient sides with incredible defensive intensity, and both were worthy finalists. South Africa particularly built a strategy around their strengths: a big, mobile forward pack and a world-class halves combination with an immaculate kicking game.
Yet when these unbreakable forces came together the resulting 12 penalty goals and few moments of attacking flair provided little in terms of a spectacle. The two moments of attacking brilliance – Makazole Mapimpi’s chip and regather and Cheslin Kolbe’s sensational finish – provided salient examples of how exciting the game can be.
Few could blame either side for their approach, but the final is an example of the current imbalance that exists between attack and defence. Neither side were willing to chance their arm, relying upon ferocious defence and strong kicking games to win the territorial battle. Both teams should be applauded for their defensive commitment, but the game lacked the attacking rugby that attracts and maintains supporters. Longstanding fans will decry any further amendments that seemingly undermine the authenticity of the game, but proactive changes are needed to ensure the future of rugby.
While World Rugby, the international rugby union governing body, tinkered with the rules in 2017, discouraging teams from consistently infringing at the ruck, more amendments are needed. At the global symposium in Paris earlier this year the governing body proposed a ’50-22′ rule – kicking the ball from inside your own half into the opposition’s 22-metre area would result in an attacking lineout. The law, which draws inspiration from the 13-man game, forces defensive teams to push their wingers back, providing more space for attacking teams to exploit.
World Rugby hopes a corollary of the increased space would be decreasing the amount of collisions and resultantly the number of injuries.
Although having more tries doesn’t inevitably equate with higher quality rugby, games with more ball-in-hand often provide an exhilarating spectacle. Japan won over many fans at this year’s tournament with their willingness to launch attacks from anywhere. Their attacking audacity shocked both Ireland and Scotland en route to the quarter-finals, demonstrating that with positive coaching teams that show verve can overcome defensive-minded opposition. The All Blacks have been proving that for years.
The issue at the moment stands between encouraging teams to attack more but equally not punishing teams who are strong defensively. Andrew Forrest’s breakaway competition Rapid Rugby provided some insight into a few potential options, with the introduction of higher value tries, time limits for scrums and lineouts and teams being unable to gain ground by kicking out on the full from inside their 22 metres.
The result is an increased amount of time when the ball is in play, up from an average of 30 minutes per match in Super Rugby. Although viewers are unlikely to see most of these new laws in international rugby any time soon, they provide a starting point for discussions about the future direction of the game.
The first World Cup in Asia has proven a roaring success. Slightly under half the population of Japan tuned in for their quarter-final with South Africa, exposing tens of millions of new viewers to the game they play in heaven. Alongside the sevens format, the game has entered and prospered in new markets.
However, the world governing body needs to maintain momentum. The key to ensuring the long-term future of the game is keeping the ball in hand.