The enforced lockdown thanks to the coronavirus has afforded an opportunity to wander down rugby union’s memory lane and review a few favourite games I have attended in the past.
The France versus New Zealand game in Paris in 1995 emphasised how much the game has changed in the professional era, and spectacle wise, it has not entirely been for the better.
Let us not be rose-tinted in the misty memories of the past. The scrums were the same mess that they are today – four resets were common then – but the key difference was the speed at which they set and reset. There was no winding the clock for these guys. The whistle to engagement often came in under 15 seconds. There was an attitude to set quickly.
The lineouts were a mess. A new respect for the halfbacks of that era has been found. In the pre-lifting days, lineouts had virtually no gaps, the ball was constantly slapped back one-handed and the opposition swarmed through on the halfback time after time, but again the speed from the ball going out of play to being thrown in is tangibly quicker compared to the modern game.
Yet the rugby from this era is so much more watchable than today’s stop-start affair.
Here’s a quick taste. Note the mess at the lineout to start, but it ends with a wonderful Eric Rush try.
For the record, I looked at games from the 1987 World Cup through to the New Zealand-Ireland series of 2012 and while these trends have been in place for years, we are really only seeing the peak negative impact of the accumulation of these issues now.
The referee for the match in Paris was Australian Peter Marshall. He refereed what mattered and he did so quickly.
There was a huge amount of off-the-ball niggle in this game, which if it didn’t impact an outcome, he let go.
I counted four punches in this match that would get you a red today and there were enough shoulder charges and high shots to embarrass the Farrell family.
This is not condoning the darker parts of the game but noting that minor incidents do not need constant attention if they don’t impact an outcome. A key difference is that the players did not get two or three minutes’ rest while a TMO up in the stand made a decision off the video. This new injection of faux rest periods I will return to. This is what is killing today’s game.
But the refereeing of the breakdown was the key difference. The sequence often went like this: tackle, place the ball, attempt to slow the ball, one clean out attempt from the offensive side, often rucking a hand or arm out of the way. The ball was either out quickly or a penalty was awarded. It was a really quick process, and the game restarted very quickly. There were lots more tap penalties, and no time for defences to reset.
This speed of ruck ball is where we need to get the game back to. We need to recreate in-game stress.
2. Size of players
Jean-Luc Sadourny, Emile Ntamack, Thomas Castaignede, Phillips Saint Andre and Alain Penaud. I’m so glad I got to see these guys play together in Paris, but given their collective size, a combination of its like will probably never be seen again.
The fact that players have got bigger and seemingly fitter is not news to anyone. But just how much bigger is the scary bit.
The team with the heaviest forwards and the tallest backs wins.
3. The laws of unintended consequences
World Rugby have constantly tinkered with ways to make the sport more attractive and thus more saleable but in recent years, a lack of end-to-end thinking has had some detrimental impacts.
The size of players is directly correlated to the introduction of tactical substitutions. The 1995 game had only injury substitutions allowed and only Richard Lowe made it onto the pitch for New Zealand and France swapped out two front-rowers. We progressed to five and then seven tactical replacements.
Today you are allowed to substitute out over half the side with eight, so one of the key factors of our game has been largely eliminated: fatigue. Not only because you can add fresh legs, but the game potentially stops up to 16 times as players are interchanged.
When was the last time a tiring side genuinely got run down late in a match? South Africa at home to New Zealand in 2017 is the only one that comes to immediately to mind.
But that isn’t the only contributor to the accommodation of player size.
There are stoppages for the TMO three to five times a game. This is a nice little set of rest periods of a minute each at least.
There is the inordinate amount of time that it takes to set a scrum, form a lineout or even kick a goal. These are all new in-built rest periods that the modern player gets to take advantage of.
Injury breaks have become another bonus rest period. One player goes down and the benches empty with support staff justifying a business-class flight. Military coups have been undertaken with fewer people than it takes to manage an injury break.
We have been constantly adding fatigue busters into the game over the last 20 years and add this to recent refereeing that allows slowing of ruck ball to ridiculous levels and we have a sport where the players are quite simply no longer aerobically stressed.
The single biggest misleading statistic must be minutes of ball in play. In round numbers the minutes the ball is play had increased in the pro era from 31 to 35 minutes, where it has plateaued for the last decade.
A better measure would be how long it takes to complete a game, the shorter the time end to end, the fewer the stoppages, the greater the aerobic challenge.
The Rebels’ visit to Dunedin in 2017 produced a game that ended a full two hours after kick-off – a frustrating watch.
Thankfully, after the World Cup in 2019 and in the early Six Nations matches of 2020, there has been something of a ground swell against the current product.
Recently re-elected World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont noted that we need to create more space on the pitch and suggested a reduction in the number of substitutes. This is a welcome suggestion but it would have held greater sway if he knew the correct number of replacements now. We have eight, Mr Chairman. Get it to five or six sharpish.
Eddie Jones has recently noted that the game has become pure power, and NFL-like in its set-piece-to-set-piece nature and noted that the average stanza the ball is now in play is only 42 seconds. Then you get a rest, not the game I want, and not one you can sell. Kudos to Jones for coaching to his environment and adopting the pure-power approach but it’s good to see he also recognises change is required.
World Rugby has recognised the issue at hand and released a law application guideline emphasising the strict enforcement of four specific laws of the breakdown. While this is good to see and should help speed the game up again, the question remains, why are the chairman and refs boss Alain Rolland not answering questions about why the written laws of the game have not been applied in recent years.
I leave the final to comments to ex-CEO of both Wales and New Zealand rugby, David Moffett, a man who has a had a foot in rugby both sides of the equator.
“The game used to be played by players on their feet and now we have wrestling on the ground and endless time spent on resetting scrums. Do fans want to watch that rubbish?”
Not me, sir!
This last quote is worth an article all by itself if you ever feel like expanding, Mr Moffett.
“The laws are absolutely atrocious because they have been fiddled around with to encompass the way some coaches want to play the game.”
Talk about lighting a blue touch paper and retiring. I would love to know more about this.
The revenue hit our game is taking globally under COVID-19 can be the catalyst for a rapid restructure of the international sport, both in terms of competition structure, laws and the ethos with which we want the game played.
Never waste a good crisis, Mr Beaumont.