As the 80-minute mark ticked over in the first Bledisloe Test in Wellington last October, with the Wallabies and All Blacks deadlocked at 16 points each we were given a gift, eight minutes of pure rugby.
Eight minutes where both teams played the type of rugby so many love, ball in hand, building phases, valuing possession. Trying to find a way through or around the opposition while carrying the ball. God it was good to watch.
In the aftermath looking at the statistics one number leapt out above the others, like a back rower popping up in a line out; the ball was in play for 27 minutes in that second half, including those wonderful eight minutes.
Wait, what? In 48 minutes match time in the second half the ball was in play for 27 minutes. Take out the eight post final whistle minutes and that’s 19 minutes of ball in play rugby in a 40-minute half of Test rugby, the game’s greatest spectacle. So what was going on the rest of the time?
I watched the following Tests forgetting that number until the Super Rugby season. Watching a reset of a reset of a scrum, resulting in a penalty and a kick for touch and a line-out and a resulting knock on and another scrum (deep sigh), while the clock mostly ticked I was reminded of that lost 21 minutes in Wellington.
And things started to become clearer. Trying to mentally keep note of the time the ball was in play (ie inside the touch lines) I landed on a figure of around four and a half minutes of ball in play rugby for the next ten minutes of that game.
Surely that couldn’t be right. Timing when the ball was in play gave the same result. Time and again, across several games, whether picking a random ten minute block of the game or a half, on average the ball was in play for around four to four and a half minutes in any ten minutes, around 16 to 18 minutes per half.
By way of comparison the World Rugby website reporting on the opening rounds of the 2020 Super Rugby season and new rule changes commented “In the opening six rounds of Super Rugby AU, the ball was in play for an average of 36 minutes 15 seconds – three minutes 42 seconds longer than the average time clocked by Australian Super Rugby teams in the previous season.” Hurray for that then, a three minute increase in an 80 minute game!
It doesn’t matter if a match is an arm-wrestle for territory or a free-flowing try-fest. Or who is playing. For example in the Brumbies match against the Rebels the TV audience was shown the Brumbies in a huddle while a conversion was being lined up.
Here’s the thing though, the clock was ticking. The TV audience were seeing a group of guys stand around talking while the clock was ticking!
Who says rugby has too many committees. At times the most interesting facet of the game was listening to commentators pronounce Marika Koroibete’s surname with as much flair as they could.
So where does the time go, in a rugby sense of course? There is no simple answer that covers all games, but a few common threads can be found:
Scrums, or more specifically getting ready to scrumage, then waiting for the half back to put the ball in while the half back waits to see if he can get a penalty, and of course scrum resets.
Penalties, now it’s easy to blame over zealous and pedantic referees, who find penalties everywhere but rugby’s rule book offers those penalties. (And this is a whole other issue on its own). Usually a penalty involves a short committee meeting then a kick for touch, followed by walking/jogging to and organising line-outs which can take the best part of thirty seconds, or a shot at goal, which can take longer.
Stoppages, such as after a knock on but before the scrum is set, or for players leaving the field, or just waiting to see what happens next.
Penalties following advantage, where a team gets a penalty, plays on, advances the ball for several or more phases, often many metres up field, then drop the ball or kick it away and the referee deems no advantage (why comically metres in front of what some might call the advantage line) and retreats back for the original penalty.
The crucial point here is the clock runs throughout advantage, but does not reset to accrue those now lost seconds when the play and field position retreat to the location of the penalty. For the record I don’t actually know if these periods of play are included in the official ball in play figures.
All of which means that the ball is in play for less than forty minutes in most matches.
And this is not including rucks where halfbacks plant their feet, figure out who they are going to pass to, wait a couple of seconds to see if there is a penalty on offer and then, mercifully pick up and pass the ball. That is actually ball in play rugby, as are kicks. So many kicks.
Now rugby fans will shout that the game is not alone in having bursts of activity and then no action. Like many sports there are periods where nothing happens, between balls and overs in cricket, between points and on change of ends in tennis, golf.
But those are times when the ball is not in play. And those sports also have their own rhythms and cadences that allow those breaks to work, including on TV.
And in some cases, such as cricket, shorter and more dynamic formats have been introduced, such as T20. Rule changes have been introduced to other football codes to speed up the play when the ball is in play. Rugby’s breaks are happening too often while the clock is ticking, while play is supposedly in progress, rather than between ball in play action. At times it makes for very boring viewing.
Much has been made of the new TV rights deal as a new era for rugby. So are people watching on Gem?
TV ratings figures of 91,00 (OzTam figures for Sat 27 March) for the Tahs versus Reds suggest large numbers of people are not watching. By contrast the NRL figures for the lowest rating match (Raiders versus Warriors on Saturday afternoon) was 160,000 viewers, on Foxtel.
Just over 500,000 watched the two Saturday night games (Eels versus Sharks, Broncos versus Canterbury) on Foxtel. For the AFL the low was 48,000 for North Melbourne versus the Suns, while another 154,000 watched the Saints and Dees, both on Saturday night, and the highest was 174,000 viewers for the Saturday afternoon Essendon and Port game, all on Foxtel.
The free-to-air figures for AFL on the same Saturday night were 462,000 viewers. And 42,000 people watched qualifying for the Bahrain formula one grand prix on Foxtel!
The game does not seem to be making headway against its competitors. Could it be because it is just so slow to watch at times? Now the purists will disagree but the purists will watch the game anyway. It’s the passing fan, the casual fan, the sports fan that are going to struggle watching. It’s the losing fan that may struggle.
Because right now we are being asked to watch 80 minutes of rugby where nothing much happens for half or more of that game time.
And with so much competition for our time, where sport is competing in the entertainment sphere against other football codes, streaming services like Netflix and online gaming, being boring is a sin, and right now rugby, the game they play in heaven, is one of the biggest sinners.