27 Mar 2019

New rules could make rugby look a lot like league

6:09 pm on 27 March 2019

Opinion - Rugby union might as well just admit it is turning into league.

Hurricanes first five Beauden Barrett.


Taking a rugby league rule to encourage running by incentivising kicking with the end goal of increasing player safety? Seems like a pretty convoluted way of rugby achieving a solution to something that is clearly a problem, but it's not the first time that union is looking to its estranged brother code for guidance.

Last Friday, World Rugby announced a set of trial laws to attempt to reduce injury rates at their global symposium in Paris. The two most notable rules being the ability to gain an attacking lineout feed if you can kick the ball into touch in your opponent's 22, and a yellow card potentially being retroactively made red if deemed suitable by the TMO.

They're both interesting ideas, but just how they are going to make rugby safer is a bit of a stretch. For a start, making a yellow card red is not going to do much if someone has been knocked out from a head high tackle already.

They are indeed just ideas right now - even if they are proven to work you're not going to be seeing them implemented any time soon. World Rugby generally trials things like these in South African university level tournaments, away from anything too major but still at a level close enough to get a gauge on how they would work at a professional level.

However, if the first proposal sounds somewhat familiar, it's because it's been a part of rugby league for over two decades. The 40-20 rule, originally brought in to add an extra attacking element to the game, is admittedly somewhat of a contentious part of league.

It effectively punishes a team for playing well. To keep a team from completing their set inside their own 40-metre line these days is a reasonably handy achievement, because it requires a side to first pin their opponent close to their line with a good kick of their own, then defend well enough to restrict them from gaining territory back on the ensuing play. If the under-pressure team can get off a decent touch-finder at the end of their set, though, the tables are turned dramatically as all of a sudden, they have possession in an attacking position.

They don't happen all the time, but like them or not, 40-20s are now very much a part of league. The thinking of bringing it into rugby is that it won't necessarily seen often, just that teams will be forced to drop their wingers (or whoever) back to guard their touchlines if the opposing team has the ball somewhere near halfway. Which in turn, will free up space to attack because it will create a mismatch in numbers. This does have some merit, spreading it wide on the last tackle deep in your own half is not uncommon in league.

So, if it does work, why stop there? After all, union has more or less been copying everything league originally did to make it a more spectator-friendly game in the first place, albeit many years after the fact. Just have a look at this league game from the 1960's:

Now have a look at this 34-phase try that Wales scored against England a couple of weeks ago:

The contest at the breakdown is becoming so rare that union and league are in easy company. If World Rugby are serious about opening up space, why don't they just go with the most obvious answer and reduce the number of players on the field?

Rugby follows a cycle with rules: Teams first try, then succeed in circumventing their meaning so they have to be changed even further. World Rugby may as well just jump to the most obvious conclusion if more space really is the answer to less injuries.

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