Now all of the code constituents are firmly facing in the right direction after Part 1 of this series, we should appreciate the wider changes evident in the game based on attention to a relatively small number of centralised changes.
The five-second law
The ripple effect of this change is perhaps even more so than the breakdown directives.
The narrowest measure for this law is ruck speed. We saw that Super Rugby Aoteroa produced an increased ruck speed of 0.44 seconds, which is huge given the competition didn’t really have an issue, and the Premiership increased by 0.34 seconds.
While this appears to be a one-way measure in favour of the offensive side, it’s anything but.
Attacking sides now need either a halfback who can make it ruck to ruck or the organisation to cover an absence. Halfbacks are now having to make decisions on the way to rucks as they don’t have the time to arrive, look around, reorganise and then play. This makes the prescriptive three-to-five phases so much harder to do.
One side seemingly impacted by this change is Exeter in England. Forward dominated, prescriptive and almost unstoppable in recent years, they have had a serious wobble since returning from the COVID break. I watched Exeter play Northampton at the weekend – the things I do for you guys, eh. It was an awful, stodgy game of football, but it was noticeable that Exeter, not being able to slowly reorganise and reset their drives phase after phase, are far less dangerous than before.
Halfbacks now don’t have all day to organise their screens. As a result we are seeing less precise box kicking and more opportunities for sides to run the ball back in broken play.
Ireland adjusted to have Christiaan Stander run the ball back from deeper to take advantage, South African No. 8 style, and his metres per carry are through the roof this year. Thanks to Off the Ball Podcast for that one.
What this has also highlighted is just how many players started their chase from in front of the kicker, and the ripple clampdown on this aspect is providing opportunities to run the ball back at staggered defence lines.
The aimless kicking of the last couple of seasons, especially down the middle of the park, is likely to be punished by your opposition having more time to execute better return kicks and running options. Stuart Hogg against England is a great case in point.
Quicker ruck ball will translate into more metres per carry in the narrow channels also, putting the onus the attacking side to have their cleaners close to the ball carrier to avoid being picked off by the jackal. One attacking player cannot arrive and seal the ball off.
Defensively it is even more difficult. Teams are having to retreat further and faster. They have to be drilled to be organised as they retreat given there is no time to readjust, especially near the post. Increasingly players are just not making it back in position in the line in time.
What has become apparent is that what has loosely been defined as the ‘rush defence’ is going to be so much harder to achieve. Coordinated line speed ruck after ruck is harder to execute, be it either in an organised position to do so or to maintain it over a sustained period as fatigue hits home.
We will have a greater sense once the full cycle of the internationals is played this year, but defensive line speed and slow balls are bedfellows, and they are now in approaching trial separation.
The breakdown directives
Without the breakdown directives, we can forget about the five-second law even being needed, but it appears the days of the deliberate ruck flop and subsequent slowing of the ball might just about be over.
As noted in Part 1, it was the establishment of the World Rugby breakdown group at the end of 2019 that has been the catalyst for this entire recasting of the game.
What should be greater concern for us all if this is confirmation of the existing laws is: what exactly happened to the refereeing of the breakdown over the last five years? Has it just been a case of wilful negligence?
For now the focus at ruck time will be on competition over constipation.
If you want to genuinely slow an opponent’s ball down, and it of course can still be done, then new techniques are required. We are already seeing the reintroduction of the counter ruck, a wonderful sight as forwards blow over an oppositions ruck ball. It warms the heart.
Jackals will still be in the game, perhaps even more so as distances extend from ruck to ruck, but they need to be demonstrabley on their feet and have their hands clearly lifting the ball. No more winning penalties for wrapping your arms around an opponent’s body, no more being rewarded for raking one-handed at the ball and, perhaps more importantly, no more surviving a cleanout to affect a turnover. Whose ridiculous idea was that one, by the way?
But there is a caution for us all.
We have a whole generation of players who have been trained to kill the ball at source and a whole generation of rugby referees who have been trained not only to allow them to do it but to reward that with penalties.
This is the area that will take longest to get right. It’s like trying to make changes to a golf swing you’ve had for years – overcoming the inbuilt muscle memory will not be perfect immediately.
Persistence and patience will be required here in equal measure.
The ripples summary
Vincent Bugliosi, the famed former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney, when commenting on the OJ Simpson case said the verdict was ‘in the air’ from early on. I have never forgotten that statement, nor how right he was. Once something is in the air it can become self-fulfilling.
The acceptance that rugby union is becoming a cleaner, faster game with less officiating tolerance for offending is now in the air.
This very rapidly spreads to all parts of the game. From referee Luke Pearce calling “allez, allez” to the French forwards when setting scrums to shorter advantages being played, from having more taps than a plumbing convention to kickers from hand putting penalties out to touch quickly, there is a dynamism evident in the code which has not been apparent for a number of seasons.
World Rugby need to not only stay their current course but find more lateral means for measuring success as the game evolves.