The All Blacks versus Springboks 100th Test match was an opportunity to celebrate one of the most esteemed rivalries in rugby.
Instead the Test, while being intense, has almost universally been panned as a dire reflection of the current state of the game. But perhaps the worst aspect of the game was the emergence of time-wasting at an unprecedented level.
There was lament that only one side tried to play entertaining rugby, and the team that did, did so poorly. It led to another iteration of the debate – should the laws be changed to remove the ability of teams to play like the Springboks did?
I don’t subscribe to that view. Even though the Springboks were playing some sort of Frankenstein’s mash-up of rugby union, rugby league, AFL and the NFL. Fifteen-man rugby has been shown, at least by the experience of the All Blacks, to be more effective at winning games (they just need to focus on peaking during World Cup years).
An argument could be made to put a finger on the scale, to a degree disincentivising up-and-under-based play. This has been done previously, as a result of the dire state of rugby in 2009 (coincidentally the main exponent of that style was South Africa), resulting in far more visually pleasing rugby in 2010.
Having multiple styles of rugby gives rugby an extra layer of richness. It leads to distinct national styles of playing (it’s great to see the French playing like the French again), which increases the tribalism of supporters. It also keeps things interesting. Rugby would lose something if the only difference between teams was their jerseys.
But there has been almost universal commendation of the time-wasting tactics employed by the Springboks. On more than one occasion the referee told the Springboks to proceed. But when he was ignored, it was about the only time he passed up an opportunity to blow the whistle.
I noticed, when I replayed the game, that I had to skip ahead multiple 15 second blocks to get back the ball being in play, even for lineouts. Normally lineouts are a no-nonsense, quick and effective restart. How many times did the South African props have to have a one-on-one meeting with the hooker?
On a tangent, has the South African teams leaving Super Rugby to play in Europe reduced their fitness even further, while reinforcing a more conservative game plan? Not that they only play ten-man rugby in the northern hemisphere, but the rugby in the northern hemisphere is still less expansive than Super Rugby.
The intent of this article is not to rehash that last weekend’s game was one for the purists. That has already been done. The purpose of this article is to discuss how the time-wasting aspect of the weekend’s game not only effects the spectacle, but also player safety.
One reaction when watching rugby is that ‘those guys look tired, let them have a rest’. But rest is the root of the problem. It allows the typically large, powerful modern rugby player to get back to full freshness. Many players in Europe and South Africa have optimised themselves to a stop-start way of playing rugby.
One of the main causes of negative player safety is that the size and power of modern players has created collisions with a lot more impact than they used to have. The head contact aspect of player safety is easy to identify and target, but the other aspect is the cumulative effect of thousands of impacts over a lifetime of play.
The ability to deliver those impacts is directly proportional to how fresh a player is, such as when they are more tired they don’t hit as hard. The issue is that players are wasting time to provide opportunities to get their breath back.
There are a multitude of potential situations that can be gamed to provide players with a rest. Some are new and some have got worse over time.
An inexhaustible list: scrum resets, the time between the ball being in touch and the lineout, place kicks, time between a stop in play and a drop kick restart, constant questioning of the referee to stop play continuing, potentially fake injuries, the inability to tie shoelaces in a timely fashion, fake HIA checks, a team of water carriers and physios invading the field whenever possible and lingering for as long as they can, all the way to blatantly ignoring the referee’s direction to get on with the game.
There are some methods that can be used to reduce time wasting: a maximum time between the ball going into touch and the lineout, a maximum time between the stoppage and the drop kick restart, reducing the time for place kicks to 45 seconds, restarting play without a player who is unsure if they can continue, and not allowing water carriers on the field at all. A whole article could be spent expanding these ideas.
If deliberate and sustained time wasting continues it should be treated to a how a succession of penalties against one side is treated as a professional foul type infringement. The referee should be able to declare that they believe a team is deliberately wasting time.
After that warning (the warning should also result in a free kick) the sanction should be penalty and yellow card of the captain, or replacement captain if the time wasting persists.
Many of the more recent opportunities to waste time are the result of well-meaning initiatives to improve player safety. If those initiatives were used, in accordance with the spirit in which they were intended, there would be a bit more down time than there used to be. But not the extent that we saw last weekend. The extent we saw last weekend was shameful.
There will still be more stoppage time than there used to be, as things like HIAs, replays for tries, or replays for high tackles are not going away. But even if frequency of and time required for stoppages was reduced to the minimum and the clock was stopped during stoppages.
Players will still not get the cardio drain that they used to get. It is a paradox that one method to make rugby safer, such as replays for high tackles, makes rugby less safe in another way, allowing players to get their breath back.
If World Rugby wants players to get tired out, they should seriously consider extending the game to 45-minute halves. If a 15-man rugby team is difficult to contain between the 35- and 40-minute mark, imagine how difficult it will be to contain them between the 40- and 15-minute mark? That’s incentive enough alone to make teams revaluate their respective fitness/power balance.
World Rugby should also consider reducing the halftime break to five minutes. That will reduce the time for players to get their breath back. Losing the halftime show won’t be a big loss.
It’s generally forgettable and packed full of cliches, especially the interviews with the coaches. A few replays, some ads and getting back to the action five minutes earlier would be more desirable. I might not even change the channel.
Also there has been recent talk of reducing the number of tactical substitutions, while maintaining the bench at the same size. While this seems, on the face of it, to follow the idea of tiring players out, this would almost certainly have a counter intuitive effect.
In the 1990s there were either no tactical substitutions, or only a limited number of tactical substitutions. It did not stop players faking a pulled muscle or cramp to allow a replacement. But what you also got was a minute of time wasting as they player had to pretend that they were injured to justify the injury replacement.
While fake injuries are possible to combat somewhat, is World Rugby going to have an MRI on the sideline to verify that the muscle is pulled, or cramping?
A player could just say they took a head knock, get replaced, then pass the concussion test later as they were never concussed in the first place. We only need to look at last weekend’s game to see the shamelessness with which some are willing to game the system to extract an advantage.
People often look at the laws, the interpretation of the laws, or the referees as the problem. But part of the problem is the mindset of certain players, teams and coaches whenever there are new laws or interpretations designed to make the game freer flowing.
Some players, teams and coaches find ways of still playing negative, high frequency-high impact collision rugby and slowing the game down as much as possible. Not only is it harming the spectacle and the growth of rugby, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is also harming the players.
The style of play exemplified by the All Blacks and the Wallabies is better suited to both: growing the game via a more alluring spectacle for the elusive, yet vital, casual viewer, and at promoting a safer game with less repetitive heavy impacts. The interesting thing is that both goals are achieved via the same mechanism: moving the ball more and keeping the ball in play more often.