Call it what you will: the ripple, contagion or domino effect. In our code, small changes have a wide impact on how the sport is played.
Right now, a stricter, more focused officiating environment is reaping benefits for the spectacle.
Before we get too excited about the direction of the game, let’s remember we are simply at the unwind stage of a misguided approach to refereeing from World Rugby post the RWC in 2015. We are running flat out to go back a mere six years, while adding some safety aspects.
Those of a more nervous disposition need not think we are on path to some sort of overgrown Sevens menagerie, rather, be assured, that will not be the end state.
Ours is, at its very heart, a combative and physical sport, almost every time the one side has the ball, they will still have XV guys to get past. This is the legislated nature of the game, and within the laws of the game there are any number of allowable physical actions that can be brought to bear upon your opponent.
Defence will therefore, always be at the core of rugby union.
What is pleasing about the current trend is that it is chipping away at the skewed advantages that have been accruing in favour of the defence of late.
What is the argument for “this time it’s different”. Why will this initiative persist when so many times we have seen refereeing directives melt slowly into the mists of time, never to seen again?
It is the breadth of the constituency supporting change in the sport that provides this confidence.
Starting with the Breakdown Review group, which met in September and December of 2019, this committee consisted of senior coaches and officials from Ireland, Scotland and New Zealand, while referees from England and South Africa were in attendance.
The focus on cleaning up the breakdown from both safety and speed aspects was borne of these meetings. This was a serious commitment of resources – and a significant outcome ensued.
This is a good lead into the broader constituents having a say in how the sport is run.
Nothing quite like a class action case in the morning to focus the mind.
If the game is going to continue to receive adequate insurance cover from dependable insurance companies, it is going to have to make changes as directed by its business partners.
On the ‘42’ podcast recently, a journalist observed he had been on a call with coaches and referees where Joel Jutge, World Rugby’s Head of Officials, was addressing the group.
In short, they got the ‘we are serious’ message, referees were seeking too much mitigation when reviewing dangerous play in game and they must follow the directives as given, going forward.
This weekend in the English Premiership we saw five red cards, and the Six Nations has seen one in each of the first two rounds.
I have never met Mr Jutge and would probably walk past him in the street, but I like this guy already.
Private Equity is in the Pro14 and the English Premiership, and they are about to buy into Six Nations and New Zealand Rugby.
I have been working for such PE firms for years, know how clever their staff are, but also know that they are very cognisant that they are investing ‘other peoples money’ and are thus laser focused.
Private equity will be driving the commercial aspects of the game.
To drive revenues up, you must have a product that can be sold. Given the amount of money already committed, some smart people have made large bets that this sport is going to have an entertainment value they can sell to a new audience.
Television companies and sponsors
They are very life blood of the sport.
If anyone has any insight into how the Amazon investment in the Autumn Internationals, I would love to know how that review went.
I suspect something like this.
“Les, come in here and let’s discuss that investment we made in Rugby Union. Don’t take your jacket off.’
Even prior to Covid, television and sponsorship deals had shown indications of peaking, Six Nations, English Premiership and South African rugby all inked deals which would have been below their budgeted forecasts.
Post Covid the battle for same dollars is now going to be a more competitive landscape, the cash simply is not there.
Right now, BT Sport are stamping their feet and trying to renegotiate their deal with the English Premiership after the latter announced there would be no relegation this year, without reference to the primary supplier of the cash flow. Not clever.
Their influence is only going to increase, and they are in the entertainment business.
The players themselves
We have had player unions in place for a while now, and in the main they do a good job, but I understand they tend to be paid for by their home union. Not a pure business relationship one would think.
In the past week, we have had a players/ex-players and associates group, called Progressive Rugby, headed by James Haskell (of course it is) making a series of demands on World Rugby. In amongst them is the need for reducing the number of replacements.
The players know what will decrease the top end of physical risk to them – do not be surprised if this suggestion is in place before RWC 2023. Another big step in the right direction for the sport.
A closing note
The refereeing directives are producing real results we can all see on the field. The real test is this weekend when for the first time in the Six Nations, two French referees will be the men with the whistle.
Do we get compliance with directives or a more laissez faire approach to the law book? This is a good test.
Part Two will address the flow on game benefits of our new refereeing paradigm