The Roar
The Roar


WR's mooted law changes are great - but show there's a hell of a lot wrong with rugby in 2024, and that sucks

Autoplay in... 6 (Cancel)
Up Next No more videos! Playlist is empty -
26th March, 2024
2964 Reads

For me at least, rugby union seems to have an unparalleled ability to induce mixed feelings. This has been brought home to me especially powerfully by the recent revelation of a raft of rule changes that World Rugby has floated as suggestions to improve the appeal and watchability of the game.

The changes – and right now they are just recommendations or trials, nothing set in stone – have my full and enthusiastic support, for the most part. Several I especially like: the idea of removing the scrum option for free kicks? Love it. Anything that reduces the number of times we have to go through the solemn and arcane ritual of set-reset-collapse-reset-warning-reset-penalty has to be good – and given the advantage a scrum can grant to a team these days, it feels like it’s giving more value to a free kick than it should have anyway.

And forcing a team to use the ball after a maul stops once, rather than twice? Oh yes, yes please! I’ve no idea why you get two goes at shoving a maul forward anyway: I can only assume that rule was created by someone with a maul fetish, or at least a vicious hatred of being able to see the ball.

Oh, there’s also the suggested requirement for referees to call “use it” earlier, to which one can only say: Halle-fricking-lujah.

The Roar Rugby Podcast hosts Matt To’omua and Christy Doran are joined by Brumbies backrower Luke Reimer. Listen in the player below or in your podcast app of choice

There’s lots more, and it’s all pretty solid stuff, I reckon. But those mixed feelings I mentioned? Well, I can’t help thinking, when all these changes are raised, as sensible and positive as they are, that it’s a terrible shame they’re necessary.


No sport ever remains static, of course: the game has always, and will always, change. But World Rugby’s announcement has brought home to me just how much about the modern game, in my own rather overrated opinion, needs to change. In other words, I think that there is a hell of a lot wrong with rugby in 2024, and that kind of sucks, doesn’t it?

Ardie Savea of New Zealand and teammates talk to Referee Wayne Barnes during the Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France on October 28, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Ardie Savea of New Zealand and teammates talk to referee Wayne Barnes during the Rugby World Cup Final. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Now, I own up with appropriate honesty and self-hatred to suffering quite severely from Back In My Dayitis. Not just in rugby either: no matter what the sport, I am quite enamoured of watching YouTube clips of games from my younger days and basking in the warm glow of nostalgia. I know that a lot of my longing for the way things were is down to who I am, and who I used to be, more than the reality of the game in front of me.

I’m also aware of the fact that some things about the modern game are undeniably better than they used to be. The zeal with which rugby has gone about minimising foul play, and ongoing efforts to reduce head injuries, are laudable indeed. There is also the sheer athleticism of players, which can result in spectacular plays that previous eras just didn’t see.

But if we are really honest, and if we do our best – acknowledging the impossibility of complete objectivity – to look at the game of rugby union in as cool and reasoned manner as possible…can we say that rugby now is better than it was ten, 20, 30, even 40 years ago?

There was a time when scrums were a shambling mess every time, to be sure. But was that worse than today, when scrums seem far less a contest for the ball, or even an opportunity to put your team on the front foot, than a base attempt to win a penalty?


Halfbacks wait by the side, ball in hand, waiting not to feed the scrum, but to hold the ball up in triumph when the referee puts his hand up. Front-rowers are judged not on their ability to hold the scrum together but to force their opposite into a technical error that will get their team the kick. Is this really better than it used to be?

Again, maybe it’s just old-man syndrome rearing its head, but I’m sure I remember a time when rolling mauls were, well, you know…rolling. I guess the modern maul is terribly attractive to younger fans, but I personally don’t gain that much pleasure out of the word “maul” being applied to the practice of seven men standing in front of the ball carrier while he slowly walks over the tryline.

Darcy Swain of the Australian Wallabies in the maul

(Photo by Getty Images)

The abovementioned rule change of having to get the ball out after one stop of the maul’s forward motion would be a great move, but it saddens me a little how the modern maul has taken a shape where this is needed to slightly ameliorate the remorseless nature of legalised obstruction. Is the way mauls are used an improvement on the old days?

As I said, the improved athleticism of players can often be a great thing – bigger, faster, stronger players leads frequently to breathtaking feats. But has the evolution of rugby into a game of giants crashing into each other, with much of the game depending purely on who wins the first contact, such a great thing? Has the specialisation of the game, where pumping players up into bigger and bigger, and less and less versatile, athletes, been an unambiguously good thing? Is the fact that the range of sizes and body types with a chance of cracking the top level seems to be narrowing a good thing? Is that better?

Watch every match of Super Rugby Pacific ad-free, live & on demand on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport

Is the constant crash-balling into tightly-packed defensive lines a big plus for the modern game? Are we glad that everything is today more structured and organised and rehearsed than it used to be? Do we look back at the loose, messy, chaotic days of yore, when skinny little fellas were playing in World Cups, scrummaging forwards tried to win the scrum rather than just the penalty, and the model for attacking play had less in common with duelling bighorns at mating time, and think, thank God it’s not like that anymore?


I mean, maybe we do. I don’t know. In any act of punditry, it’s important for the writer to keep the possibility that they are an idiot in play at all times.

But I think we should at least ask the question. Has rugby, in its course, kept moving forward, or are all the ideas for changing rules a symptom of a game that has lost far more than it’s gained over the last few decades? Is the game we love better than it was?

I’d love to know what you reckon.