The rugby emperor’s new clothes?

Australian rugby guru Rod Macqueen, one of the architects of the Stellenbosch rules

Missing Link arts editor and Sidelined sports pundit Amanda Rose habitually refers to rugby as “yawnion”, and this commenter received short shrift from Chris Sheil for expressing similar sentiments on his latest World Cup post:

If you dont like it, dont watch it, dummy. The less the better, as the fans would then be able to watch it free to air on the ABC. If we can drive enough of the numnuts away, we might even be able to have games in the afternoon again. Bliss.

Tongue in cheek no doubt, but not really a wise attitude in this ultra-professional sporting era, when rugby is competing for players, sponsorship and crowds with league, AFL and even soccer.

Moreover, mightn’t the doubters actually have a point? I’m a rugby bloke born and bred, and I’ll certainly be staying up to watch every match Australia plays, and quite a few of the other World Cup matches as well. But let’s be blunt about it: far too many top level rugby games are boring, boring, boring, at least for potential fans who can neither understand nor appreciate the nuances of scrummaging, rucks, the rolling maul or lineout techniques and tactics.

Under the combination of current international rules, intensive coaching and fitness and strength levels that only full-time professionalism can deliver, international rugby has evolved to a point that reminds me of the old “bash and barge” rugby league era in the 1960s, when St George won 11 Sydney premierships in a row with a stodgy, grinding, forward-based brand of football that proved highly effective but also drove the crowds away. Rugby is at a similar stage. Teams are coached to commit a minimum number of players at the breakdown, with the result that an attacking team almost always faces a defensive wall of 12 or even 13 players lined out across the field right on the advantage line. Backlines have almost no space in which to construct creative, exciting attacking plays, so big, powerful back row forwards have to be incorporated into the backline to bash and barge holes in the defensive wall. It involves lots of subtle, complex tactics but it isn’t often pretty to watch.

Rugby league dealt with its “bash and barge” era by wholesale rule changes, introducing the 5 metre and 6 tackle rules and reducing the value of field goals to a single point, and that certainly ushered in a whole new, faster, more open and attacking style of play.

Fortunately, with any sort of luck, the International Rugby Board may be about to do something similar. Trials of the new Stellenbosch rules for the current Australian Rugby Championships have been really exciting, at least to my taste. Every game I have watched has been fast and open and has involved much more flair and creativity than you would typically see in half a dozen international fixtures played under existing rules, despite the fact that the range of individual talents on display is distinctly patchy.

The Stellenbosch rules were devised by a panel which included Australian coaching God Rod Macqueen, and are mooted for full introduction to international rugby next year (in some form or another). They involve greatly simplified rules at the breakdown, so that there are far less penalties and scrums, and most penalties are of the “short arm” variety where a quick tap kick is usually taken (allowing instant broken field attack with the defending team back 10 metres). The number of slow, boring scrums is greatly reduced under these rules, at least judging by the ARC matches I’ve watched.

Moreover, both teams must be 5 metres back from the offside/advantage line at scrums, roughly equivalent to the 5 metre rule in rugby league. Unfortunately, they haven’t gone the whole hog and introduced a 5 metre rule at the breakdown generally, which would have really opened up the game. Instead, the offside line for rucks and mauls is drawn (and enforced by touch judges) through the rearmost point of the rearmost player engaged at the breakdown. At least that means teams are lined out about 2 or 3 metres further apart than under existing international rules where defenders can and do hover right on the advantage line. It certainly promotes more attacking play, but a full 5 metre rule would have been better.

Lastly, passing back into the 22 metre zone and then kicking out on the full results in a lineout back where the ball was kicked, making it much more difficult and less productive to play 10 man forward-based rugby. That should militate against forward-based teams like England, France and South Africa and in favour of countries with more adventurous, attacking styles like New Zealand and Australia.

I’ll be watching World Cup matches as passionately as any other rugby fan, but I can’t help wondering how much better it would be if the contest for Old Bill was being conducted under Stellenbosch rules. Roll on 2008, and may the IRB have the courage and unity to adopt Stellenbosch rules in their entirety (even adding a full 5 metre rule at the breakdown).

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mungo Amanda
14 years ago

Since my name has been invoked, let me be clear: your average union match could be the objectively most thrilling hour and half you could ever have which didn’t involve George Clooney and a tub of H

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

The implications of your title are at odds with the message of your post, or so it seems to me!

Personally I like them both, and appreciate them both for their different elements. I think that a lot of the ‘boringness’ comes from having two fairly well-matched teams that make very few mistakes more than anything else.

My experience of the ARC was that whilst it did seem quicker, it was not necessarily so. Partly, there were just much more handling errors and resulting turnovers (often in-play, there is no stoppage if a pass goes to ground, for example, or a kick is simply misttimed and the other side recover it easily).

Conversely, perhaps only because this was such a lower level to the internationals, the breakdowns were often super-slow with one team securing the ball and then marshalling their players at leisure.

So I will indeed be interested to see how it translates to top-flight matches. I suspect the biggest benefit will be less inconsistent refereeing, and the ‘devaluing’ of Smith, McCaw, Burger, Charvis, Nyganga et al (although those players all have enough other skills besides getting balls out of rucks without getting pinged).

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

I reckon theres a research project in this. On most other criteria Amanda, Parish and cs appear as intelligent thinking people.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

Rugby union … is that the one where Norman May does the commentary?

gilmae
14 years ago

The ARC is yet young, but I suspect the last rule you mentioned – the change to kicking out on the full from within one’s 22 – will merely result in fullbacks practicing how to kick out on the bounce.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

Someone should tell to fix their broadcasts too (another reason the ABC might be better).

Out here in the boonies, under the feeble broadcasting efforts of Southern Cross 10, we can’t get the rugby in High Definition as profusely advertised. Only standard definition. This is kind of disappointing as I bought a HD set top box (albeit a cheap one) so I could get some better pictures for events like this.

Why have SC10 not been broadcasting in HD? Their excuse is that they can’t show advertisements in HD. At the moment, when you are lucky enough to get a HD show on SC10, whenever the ad breaks come on, they have been showing the high definition demonstration loop. While this is quite funny (and very relaxing), it hasn’t stopped them re-broadcasting dross like “Australian Idol” in HD. It has put the kibosh on the Rugby though. Not happy!

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Not a very pleasant thing for rugby die-hards to face up to, but it’s true. Modern rugby is currently on a road to nowhere, except, sadly, on the trajectory to having separate forward and defensive teams and halftime wardrobe malfunctions.

Rule changes will certainly help, and is the exact place to start.

The code hasn’t handled professionalism at all well. At administrative level – and this hurts – players are not called that any more, they’re called ‘assets’. Definitely not to mention what teams are called.

Kids of eight years of age are talking about contracts as the reason for their playing. Regardless of whether they know what they’re talking about, this is what’s going on.

And if any Leaguie wanted a laugh, have a look at a rugby development officer doing the rounds. Puts you off straight away, and indicative of lack of vision let alone any cohesion in that state to deliver one. The bickering and power plays in NSW Rugby in the last decade have been shameful. More than once the full contingent of the development team were called to head office, told there and then to place their car keys and other job items in a bucket, to enter a meeting wherein some would discover they’ve lost their jobs. A centre of inspiration?

Add the isolating “structure” of Super 14, and note that a player can no longer truly represent their State, one of the most wonderful paths to maturity for young men, gone. It is insane.

This all translates to the field as risk-averse, corporate friendly personality play. The key thing being ‘risk-averse’, to protect the corporate sponsor image and dollar. And it threatens to become a self-defeating cycle, where onfield play sets the style of player to be developed (and bought) in earlier years.

Modern Rugby is also very indicative of modern times. But while buck-shot with considerable problems, the great strength of its spiritual institution is solid to ensure, hopefully, correct changes are made the direction reasserted.

cs
cs
14 years ago

not really a wise attitude in this ultra-professional sporting era, when rugby is competing for players, sponsorship and crowds with league, AFL and even soccer.

Why should I give a bugger? They pay corporate types to think about all that boring business stuff. I just like to watch, and everyone else can make their own arrangements. Go the Wallabies!

Tony T.
14 years ago

Three words: Gordon _______ Bray.

cs
cs
14 years ago

The number of slow, boring scrums is greatly reduced under these rules

boring scrums is an oxymoron. Ken must have been a back. There is no such thing as a boring scrum. Scrums are the heart of the game. Scrums are what defines rugby. Scrums are where rugby starts. The rugby scrum is one of the authentic wonders of the world. Backs are the game’s optional extras.

Whatever rule it is that is reducing scrums will have to be ditched. We want more scrums, not less. Over these parts, we’re eagerly awaiting Phil Kearns’ long promised DVD “The 100 Best Scrums”, and are delighted to hear that the follow-up is already in planning: “The 100 Best Scrum Re-Sets”.

Altogether now: … crouch … touch … hold … engage … *KABOOM*

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

The problem is not with scrums, but with the loss of distinction between forwards and backs. The intensity of scrums from previous rugby incarnations has moved through to general play, spreading out through mini-rucks and mauls (less players committed) and phases. So when a scrum comes along, it appears in that context to be a stoppage, with a resultant desire from many spectators to simply get it over with.

This is raises an important question: to what extent should Rugby be seeking a greater audience?

There have been Test Matches between Australia and the All Blacks where scrums were set again and again, for (or as it seems) as long what? ten minutes? Obviously this gave rise to rule changes to free that up and try to attract more spectators.

But for many rugby folk that intensity of contest served many functions: it brought forward play in so tight that a sort of substory game was being played, as epic contest of itself; it freed the backs (without their play infused and confused by “settler” forwards) and, while the epic scrum contest was fought, made them hungrier and hungrier. To fully appreciate these things required often a playing background: to know what awesome things were going on in there, to feel for your teammate during that epic contest, and to feel that subtle change of energies as the forwards brought all the loose or running play energy into a singular tight battle, allowing the backs to reset and rethink and charge their penetrating- powers, along with a well considered plan(s) of attack for the next passage(s). This was very much part of the fine art of rugby, and part of what set it apart from any other game on the planet. While fewer people wanted to watch the game, those that did were repaid with higher satisfaction rates.

Injuries, too, led to these rule changes, and fair enough. I’ve put the ball into epic scrum contests and, shockingly, not recognised the faces of my front row, so contorted and pressure strained they were. How many more people never broke their necks is beyond me, having witnessed intense scrummaging hits and struggles.

Back to the original point: Rugby, I believe, has to decide how wide an audience it wants. The thing about Grid Iron is not entirely folly: as an extrapolation of current play, to have separate attack and defense teams is a logical integration of the current skills and plays – and look at the width/breadth of that audience. All the plays are there, the skills and required physiques, and the ball is constantly in view (perhaps the major audience factor).

For the Rugby powers that be to decide to seek a more limited audience would allow for rules which guide the play so it is enjoyed at a heightened and more loyal level, than to try to be all things for all people. Exactly what those rules are is no doubt a point of contention. Nor is it necessarily the best way to go; perhaps a change of rules will produce another incarnation which is enjoyed greatly by the many.

I do expect, though, that in seeking the widest audience, loss of the fine art of Rugby play, spirit, development, comaradarie, intensity, loyalty – such as the epic, symbolic, and multiserving scrum battle – makes for a lesser game.

cs
cs
14 years ago

I agree Robert. I don’t think rugby should seek wider audiences. On the contrary, I reckon the game would be better off with a smaller, mor educated following, perhaps 20 per cent less.

The trick is to knock off just the right anount of spectators to make it unviable for pay-TV, so we can go back to the ABC. Ideally, this would also be enough to make the Telstra stadium unviable, so Tests would be played at the Sydney Stadium. Even more ideally, this would make the Telstra Stadium unviable commercially overall, so that it would be bulldozed and rebuilt as a functional rugby ground.

Aspiring for a smaller audience and scrapping the pay-TV contract will mean less money of course, but there is plenty of room for savings. Good luck to the top players, but those multi-million dollar salaries are absurd. I’d also like to see the flaming idiot who thinks rugby fans at the grounds need 15 seconds of “Twist and Shout” and “Eye of the Tiger” every now and again sacked outright without mercy, and perhaps put in public stocks somewhere for prolonged public humiliation. And he can take the loser who is resposible for half-time entertainment with him. Silence at half-time would be a real winner, allowing the middle to be occuppied for 15 minutes of the local under 10s. We can also save by shutting off the big screens at the ground for all purposes except replays. And while I’m here, when are rugby’s tv producers ever going to realise that rugby is not league? We do not want to see the last movement in a try played over and over and over like the Mungos do. We want to see the whole movement that led to the try replayed over and over again. And before I go, who is the dimwit who thinks viewers of the current World Cup on tv actually want to hear the players sing [sic] the national anthems? Get that microphone out of there.

Amanda
14 years ago

Sounds like cs needs to get down to Henson Park and watch the Newtown Jets of a Sat arvo like me. Wrong class of sport but everything else as described. Including the under 10s at half time.

cs
cs
14 years ago

I’m think that the union must bring much more focus onto the scrum. For a start, we need better scrum stats. Half-back, hooker and loose-head stats and percentages on scrums against the head should be permanently on tap. We should also have a league table of pack sizes, cut internationally, nationally and historically on tap. Also, pack re-set records should be kept. Counts should be kept on re-sets, and average number of re-sets, including re-sets that went against the head versus non-resets against the head. Refs should also come under the microscope (average no of re-sets per game).

The above-cam in the World Cup supplies lots of stuff to work with. The game needs to teach appreciation of the different options, such as when the 8 picks up the ball. I’ve also noticed that Palu switches from packing down between the locks to between the flank and lock sometimes. What’s that all about? We need diagrammatic modules to illustrate the options and shifting tactics.

The idea that scrums are “boring” plays directly into and encourages the presumption of spectators suffering from permanent attention-deficit syndrome. The union needs to turn this completely on its head. As scrums are a genuinely unique part of rugby, they need to be brought much more into commentary and promotional focus.

The potential has been barely tapped. It’s blue-sky …

murph
murph
14 years ago

Hey Shielsy, you rugby genius, tell us all again about how rubbish Chris Latham is!

murph
murph
14 years ago

Ken must have been a back

Don’t tell me you were a forward Shielsy. Was that before or after the operation?

cs
cs
14 years ago

murph, thanks to the constructive criticism of Socks Down by, I admit, very many, but including, humbly, yours truly, from two seasons ago said Socks Down commenced his trajectory toward reducing his quota of brain spasms per match, gradually becoming the much more secure player we see before us today (given that he has been out of the play with an injury, we’ll forgive the relapse evident when he passed the ball straight into Smithy’s noggin last week). You may leave the money on the fridge.

cs
cs
14 years ago

Getting back to the point of the thread, the qualification on the trial rules that will give rugby fans comfort that the faith is not being betrayed is:

21. A scrum option is available for all FKs. [Free-Kicks]

Aidan
Aidan
14 years ago

“As scrums are a genuinely unique part of rugby, they need to be brought much more into commentary and promotional focus.”

P’zackly! The punters don’t know what they want until you tell them.

The one shining light in a miasma of commentary awfulness on Channel 10 is Ben Darwin, particularly when he is describing the finer points of the scrum. It is gold! (Personally I think he is touting for a gig as a scrum coach .. but that is ok)

Ben Tune should be taken out the back and shot, and the grinning monkey should be strangled, but Darwin is a gem.

“The front row are settled down nicely on their second rows”

“Dunning has been penalised for rotating his hips”

Marvelous stuff.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

I broadly agree Aidan. Tune has made one or two weird calls indeed, and Darwin has been great.

But most of all..

the grinning monkey

– well put.

cs
cs
14 years ago

I second that Aiden. There shoud be an officially recognised scrum commentator in every broadcast who is given the live to air call, and a special camera fpor instructional close-ups and, and …. tell ya what, if the Seppos had a scrum to promote on tele, it’d be bigger than Ben Hur.

I think the problem with Tuney and to a lesser degree Ben Darwin is that they have too recently been players, which means they are always trying to be careful not to offend their mates and officials. Same problem with Morgs in doing a blog. Even Timmy Horan was impossibly vanilla until he gave his positon as a national selector away. The best commentators are always the old heads who say what they think and don’t give a stuff, like the Ellas, Campo, Nick Farr-Right, Kearnsey … and, well, what ever happened to Poido? Bring back Poido!

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Heartedly agree there should be scrum-specific cameras and commentary. This doesn’t have to be for every scrum (except the direct feed into the old first eight’s sheds) but it should certainly show the battle and the changes as they are made and lost – this is story, the power of story. And it’s the central stone upon which games develop.

cs
cs
14 years ago

Exactly Robert. I’d also like to see the team that has had a try scored against it having the option of restarting play with a scrum in the centre (i.e. not the opening and half-time kick-offs, or goals). It’d be a powerful way of signalling the intent in reply.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Itd be a powerful way of signalling the intent in reply.

Geez, wouldn’t it. For a team to choose that, it would come from a try against them say, against the run of play, or when they were fresh (legs) and keen to shove it back, or when in deeeeep guts effort to make a claim and try to change to psychological state staring down defeat. Great idea.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

[to read the].

Ps. Do you see it as defending team feed? And if it’s too much advantage, a limit of what, two per match in tournaments?

cs
cs
14 years ago

Hmmm. Let’s see if this can make sense followed all the way through. It’d have to be the feed of the team that would be otherwise kicking off. Essentially, it is the scrum/free-kick option to restart, at the discretion of the team scored against, except in that you can kick out on the full for a line-out in a free-kick. In most instances, assuming rough scrum-parity, I guess it would be a trade-off between starting the game by defending in broken play around the opposition’s quarter-line versus attacking on the half-way line. Given the priority on territory over possession in the modern game, I’m assuming the option would only be taken up by a team determined to back itself.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

I see it the same way territorially.

The advantage to the feeding team is that they are better placed to aim a kick deep at the corner post, or high to a fullback such as Gareth Thomas, and let him hear the thunder of the loosies bearing down. The latter is fresh advantage, the former can be gained from the other choice of a kick off itself. In each kicking scenario, the newly defending team would have to make placement choices – do they set for the kick and leave themselves disadvantaged for running attack, and vice versa.

Its real benefit is that it is a game changer, both in play and psychologically, and for that reason I think it has a place; and hence a limit per match. Alternately, kicking from the scrum win could be disallowed for the feeding team until a ball player is tackled, or some such.

Or, bearing in mind a feeding team may score quickly, the team scored against gets the same option – so how much of it would happen if unfettered, is the first question.

cs
cs
14 years ago

I don’t understand why there would have to be a limit. It could only happen if a try has been scored againt the team choosing the option and, as you say Robert, if the scrum-start then resulted in a counter-try, the opposition would then have the same option. If it resulted in a deep kick, this would be the same as a kick-off, except in that the fowards would be bunched, allowing for more open return play, in line with Ken’s bid. Similarly with the high kick.

The substantive change, as far as I can see (but the consequences of rule changes are complex to imagine), would be that a team that had a try scored against it would have the option of backing its authority in the scrum to retain possession and go straight on the attack in possession. I would imagine that a captain would only pick this option over the kick-off if it (a) had great confidence in its scrum and (b) was prepared to risk a turnover near the half-way in exchange for having a running opportunity. In other words, as I see it, it would be a rare (and powerful) declaration of authority and intent in response to a try, or basically no change bar a slightly more open equivalent of a kick-off. But maybe I’m missing something.

More generally, my most serious concern (of many) over any devaluation of the scrum is that it would increase the risk to what I see as the most unique and outstanding general charm of rugby, which is that I know of no other team game that has a place somewhere for every major body shape known to humanity, apart from the unfit. It is the scrum that gives this most precious of all qualities to rugby.