Rugby Laws: Where to from here?

The NRC law variation commitee
The NRC law variation commitee

The ongoing debate on whether rugby laws should be altered in order to promote a more exciting product is fast becoming a hot topic. Experimental laws are being trialled at a number of domestic competitions around the world including the inaugural season of Australia’s National Rugby Championships’ and South Africa’s Varsity Cup. To date, the NRC is producing some of the most crowd thrilling games of rugby that can be watched around the planet, mainly due to law variations. On the other hand, international rugby laws are too complicated, reducing the speed and entertainment of the game. It is time the the IRB takes notice of what it’s fans want: exciting, fast paced rugby.

ASSESSING EXPERIMENTAL LAWS

Some experimental rugby laws are showing the benefits at providing exciting rugby, however not all laws would be beneficial to bring into the international game. Before these laws should be considered to be applied on a larger scale, they should be first judged on three different merits:
-the ability to maintain the fabric of the game,
-the ability to enhance in providing exciting rugby &
-the ability to reduce the complication of the game and multiple interpretations of the laws.

The NAtional Rugby Championships (NRC)

The NRC is Australia’s domestic professional rugby competition, involving nine teams from around the country. It is currently at the forefront of the law variation debate, providing exciting rugby, while making international headlines through the success of it’s experimental laws.

In a daring move, the ARU linked arms with Australian rugby fans to develop a shortlist of possible experimental law variations. Each of these variations have been designed to reward risk and provide enhanced, entertaining rugby. Over 6,000 public votes were compiled in combination with the views of an expert panel consisting of; Rod Kafer, Bob Dwyer, Wayne Erickson and Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, before the final variations were decided on.

Will Genia approving of the NRC law variations. Photo by Chris Hyde (Getty Images Sport)
Will Genia approving of the NRC law variations. Photo by Chris Hyde
(Getty Images Sport)

The International Rugby Board (IRB), who will be known under their new name ‘World Rugby’ from October 2014, gave the all clear to the alterations prior to the competitions commencement.

The first four rounds of the NRC have seen 141 tries from 16 matches, with an average of 8.8 tries per match, which is significantly higher in comparison than the 2014 Super Rugby season (4.91) and current Rugby Championships (TRC) (3.75).

The LAW VARIATIONS

If you have read any rugby articles or filtered through any rugby forum over the last number of years, you would have read an article discussing the necessity to reduce the value of three point penalties and field goals. Unlike Rugby League, where penalties and field goals are only worth two and one points consecutively, it is far too common in Rugby Union to watch boring try-less penalty-fests.

The most significant NRC law variation, is the shift in penalty and field goal values from three points to two and conversions from two points to three. This variation heightens the importance of tries and promotes an attacking style of play. A converted try (eight points) is now equivalent to four penalties, while in other competitions a converted try (seven points) is less valuable than three penalties (nine points).

These alterations in scoring have dramatically decreased the amount of penalties taken, with only 9 attempts seen over 16 matches, in comparison to 8 seen during the Wallabies verse Argentina game over the weekend. As a result the ball is seen in play for roughly 10-15 more minutes each game, consequently making games more of a spectacle for the crowd and a faster pace for the players.

Crowd numbers are rising for Australia's new NRC. Photo by Scott Barbour (Getty Images Sport)
Crowd numbers are rising for Australia’s new NRC.
Photo by Scott Barbour
(Getty Images Sport)

A number of other law changes have increased the pace of the NRC, these include;
-30 second to set scrums,
-reduced time for penalty kicks and conversions,
-halfback prohibited from entering the “pocket” between the flanker and No. 8 from a scrum,
-straight lineout throws unnecessary during an uncontested lineout,
-quick lineouts are allowed if the ball has been touched &
-a ‘table top’ area is allowed for quick taps.

The remaining law variations are:
-limited TMO referrals,
-more focus around applying laws once a maul has formed,
-bonus points for winning by three plus tries or losing by eight or less points &
-penalties may be kicked out and a line out played after half-time and full-time.

Other Trialled laws

Australia however isn’t the only country trialing experimental law variations. South Africa’s Varsity Cup, which is the pinnacle of university rugby in SA, is known for trialing law variations.

The Varsity Cup is trialling a number of experimental law variations this year, including the implementation of the ‘Free Catch Rule’. Put simply, a player may now call for a ‘mark’ of the ball anywhere on the field after catching the ball on the full, as opposed to only inside their 22. The player is then allowed to take a free kick, however if they opt to play on, they are rewarded with a free kick advantage. The logic behind the ‘Free Catch Rule’  is to attempt to reduce aimless kicking in play. The law itself will aid in enhancing the entertainment value of the matches, however it is likely to change the fabric of the game.

The other law variations being brought into the Varsity Cup are a dual-referreeing system, similar to the system in Rugby League, which would assist in reducing excessive TMO referrals and specially designed jerseys for props, aimed at making binding easier and safer are also being trailed in the Varsity Cup.

International laws

Steve Hansen has emerged unimpressed this week, on the back of a number of referring mistakes over the first four rounds of TRC between Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina. He was careful not to criticize the referees, rather attacking the rule book itself for being too complex.

He stated that the referees’ jobs were made harder due to the fact rules could be interpreted differently by their home nation, the northern hemisphere and the IRB. Hansen however offered a simple solution, stating that the IRB should hire a panel of referees and touch judges to work in teams of three (1 ref, 2 touch judges) throughout the year. Each team should then be judged as one, while international games would always be officiated by one of these teams, in turn would providing a higher level of consistency.

final word
Michael Alaalatoa running the ball up against the Greater Sydney Rams in R1 of the NRC. Photo by Mark Metcalfe (Getty Images Sport)
Michael Alaalatoa running the ball up against the Greater Sydney Rams in R1 of the NRC.
Photo by Mark Metcalfe
(Getty Images Sport)

Game attendance and television viewers for Rugby in Australia has been on a steady decline. It is now the fourth most watched football code in Australia… We don’t have a fifth code to compete with.  The IRB has two choices, to take notice of experimental laws being trialled around the world or to watch the game fade away.

A change in the scoring system, such as the one seen in the NRC, would be a major stepping stone in providing a more exciting product to attract new fans, rejuvenate the game in Australia and continue to grow the game globally.

For any other law variations, if they satisfy the aforementioned merits, I welcome their considerations.

Written by Nelson Dale

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