Not all rugby is boring. It’s northern hemisphere rugby, as exemplified by the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup, that has the issue. So what? Kiwis and Ozzies have been pointing that out for decades. But it’s objectively bad when English rugby royalty are complaining about the state of rugby after their team has just won both international competitions this year. Clive Woodward even decided, ‘rugby has become the most exasperating, infuriating, frustrating and, occasionally, completely unwatchable game.’ Ugo Monye thinks it could be the lack of fans, long-season fatigue or new coaches. Before the game can be put to rights, why rugby is boring needs to be clarified.
Why Rugby is Boring
Laws & Tactics Make Rugby a Boring Boy
Law updates are what kick-started the chain of events that made rugby boring most recently. World Rugby updated laws 14.2, 14.5, 15.5 and 15.11 all involving the tackle-area and rucks. Each of the updates means to encourage quicker rucks, so players spend less time involved in them, reducing the chance of injury (nine per cent of match injuries occur there). The idea is positive for player welfare, but the practice is messy with the first round of Super Rugby Aotearoa seeing ‘no fewer than 60 penalties – 40 of which were at the tackle area – across two matches.’ Rucks are now weighted so in favour of the defending team, its more dangerous to have the ball, than not. That’s what teams have adapted to and that’s why the game is different.
Whenever World Rugby updates or changes the laws, it’s the team that adapts their style quickest and most efficiently that dominate. At this point in time, it’s England and their monstrous but bendy pack doing that. France is close-behind with its own heavy-hitting gymnasts. The ruck, one technical aspect of the game, is now the sticking-point of every game – the opposite of World Rugby’s intention. There are only so many outcomes from a ruck, nearly all of which are now causing a chain of events detrimental to the pace and enjoyment of a game.
Kicking might be the worst consequence of all. Since teams don’t want the ball because it means defending a ruck, they boot it away instead. That isn’t something new; it occurs when a team has no tactical advantage against the opposition, so the idea is to force errors and penalties, to generally spoil the others game plan altogether. The 2019 World Cup semi-final between Wales and South Africa was a prime example, the match a series of box-kicks, bombs and scrums. The point is to gain territory and possession by either regathering said kicks, forcing a knock-on from the opposition, or making them defend a ruck which, no one wants to do now.
Sometimes that leads to minutes of kicks and catches until one or the other gets bored and kicks the ball out, drops it, or on the rare occasion, runs it. It can be an intense and entertaining tactical battle at the end of a tight game, but throughout is dull. In a further complication, when a ruck is successfully formed, it often leads to an endless caterpillar cha-cha of seven-foot-tall locks in order to facilitate a box-kick. The process repeats unless a team drops it, which means a scrum – another rusty link in the chain.
Scrums are the equivalent of dead air right now. They began as opportunities to break up a hectic game and to set an attacking play. The game isn’t so helter-skelter anymore, and the players are so powerful the scrums aren’t fast either. Who has infringed upon whom is so unclear that resets are ordered and the process repeats as the clock ticks on until the ball is gone or someone goes down again. Each scrum takes around 30 seconds to reset and leads to instances like Scotland vs France, where, ‘in the first half alone, eight minutes and 39 seconds of play were taken up by six scrums or sequences of scrums.’ Or like the 100-minute match between Wales and France in 2017. Fans like watching scrums in action, not 16 burly men adjusting their tops and gripping one another as they wait (although some might pay for that).
The worst result of all is penalties. At the minute, teams unable to play the no-ball game like Wales are haemorrhaging ruck penalties. The big, rugby is boring issue is that with the extra penalties, teams are kicking for goal instead of touch, reducing the in-play time more. Where, 20+ years ago, players would kick to touch from the halfway line, they now field a specialist long-range kicker to try anywhere within 60m. The final of the Autumn Nations cup between England vs France typified the chain of events. Altogether there were thirteen penalty kicks. England attempted nine, with Farrell missing four of eight attempts. France missed none. Although Farrell continued to miss his shots at goal, he didn’t opt for a touch kick, a lineout and the chance at a try. Why would he?
France’s only try was a silky, but rare opportunistic chance out the backs. England’s try was a forceful maul attempted out of necessity rather than choice in the last minute. The day before, Scotland played aggressive and attacking rugby against Ireland but scored one unplanned try and relatively few points for their 30 minutes of dominance. They were whittled down to a 31-16 defeat by the consistent, kicking Irish. The pointlessness of the advantage rule was also highlighted in the game as Sexton kicked the ball away as soon as he had one. The only reason he kicked being that it would seem unsportsmanlike to drop it on purpose.
It’s not conducive to any situation to list the reasons why it’s not working. Some solutions must be spit-balled in the hope one might stick. For that, the South might have answers.
South of the World
As mentioned earlier, NZ’s Super Rugby Aotearoa did suffer from the updated laws at first, but the teething problems subsided as teams played the rule as they were meant to: quickly. Naturally, the rule suited a league that already valued attacking rugby and wasn’t bogged down in the purist aspects. It was also nice to see the experimental additions of a “golden point” extra time for draws and 20-minute red cards, although they didn’t show up until the third round. Either way, teams were encouraged and given more chance to play expansively to score points.
Australia’s rebooted Super Rugby AU featured the same updated rules as Aotearoa and included more experimental adjustments like the goal-line dropout. After a ball was held-up or knocked on over the line, the defending team was rewarded with a goal-line dropout instead of an attacking or defensive five-metre scrum. Since the ball would rarely go further than halfway, it led to some incredible opportunities to attack. Players that you wouldn’t usually see with ball in hand like Taniela Tupou, the “Tongan Thor”, were regularly used as a crash-ball option. Another welcome addition was the 50/22 law, where a player that kicked from within their own half and bounced the ball in the opposition 22 received a throw-in for their team. Whilst defensive sets learned how to counteract the new rules, they couldn’t always. It was fun to watch them figure it out, at least.
Rugby is boring: Northern Suggestions
What changes could they make? To start, they can’t change any rules that will endanger players, such as the laws they’ve already changed, or by reducing the number of subs, as Jeremy Guscott suggested. Matt Dawson suggested that ‘the laws could change so you only allow certain players to jackal or you are only allowed to send two people into a ruck defensively.’ He also wants the clock to stop ‘every time the referee blows the whistle for a scrum.’ How strange would the game look if only half a team could jackal? Fewer players participating in rucks also means more in the defensive line. Stopping the clock reduces the time wasted in the game but it doesn’t prevent the actual time spent on the field. It’s still a momentum-killer for fans and players alike, not to mention the welfare concerns it would run into.
In the comments sections of the same articles, all sorts were proffered by fans. From axing rucks, removing players, and to two men wheeling a scrummaging trolley on and off again so the scrums wouldn’t collapse. They all run into the same issues of player welfare and causing the game to change intrinsically and become more like its relatives, American Football, league, 13s and 7s.
Some of the rule changes inserted in the Southern hemisphere could be trialed in the North. It seems unlikely since both sides of the world already play by the same rules. The culture and values of each and neither is going to change. There’s always going to be more of a focus on the purist elements like scrummaging and rucks when the most successful northern hemisphere team, England, continue to produce massive forwards and good kickers that win competitions. The same applies to the forward-dominated areas of scrums, mauls and rucks which are all integral to the sport. No serious changes can be made to them without fundamentally changing the game.
Similarly, coaching teams, analysts, specialists and tactics aren’t going away so the game can return to a “purer” form as it was in the pre-professional era. There’s no incentive for coaches and teams to change their style of play, either. Wayne Pivac recently claimed that ‘changes are coming’ and Wales will be ‘ahead of the curve’ when they do. Would you rather be losing now with a chance of winning in the future, or win now and adapt later like Eddie Jones? It’s a no-brainer for coaches and players who are winning, and that’s what he means when he says, ‘rugby goes in cycles.’ Eddie’s England will change when they stop winning but they haven’t yet.
The most realistic procedure is for lawmakers to see how stale the game is and quickly create rules to correct it. Ironically, it’s their most recent change that has brought the newest issues to light. Ugo Monye noted that it’s positive a person like former Ireland coach, Joe Schmidt, is now working for World Rugby. The idea is that a person who has hands-on experience should have more practical solutions. He also notes that they have the powers to bring in changes quicker than ever. With the 6 Nations just two months away, the only hope is that World Rugby tweak things fast and in the right way towards attacking rugby by looking to the Southern Hemisphere. Otherwise, even with the choice, the fans might not come back again.
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