17 Sep 2021

Bidwell: World 12s may not revive rugby, but it's worth a punt

3:09 pm on 17 September 2021

Opinion - The mooted move to a franchise model can't come quick enough for rugby.

The game at international level has become an expensive, sluggish, predictable bore and, if 12-a-side footy is the answer, then let's get on with it.

Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said he believed players would jump at the chance to take part in the new 12-a-side tournament. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

I don't believe cricket needed fixing. I'm not remotely convinced that the game was dull or in disrepair.

But, whatever its faults, the Indian Premier League (IPL) has generated money and taken a huge financial burden away from minor nations such as New Zealand, which is undoubtedly a good thing.

Once upon a time I would've railed against the idea that the Black Caps were fielding makeshift international XIs - as is the case on these tours to Bangladesh and Pakistan - so that our stars could attend the IPL.

But New Zealand Cricket have made it work. The Black Caps have been in the last two 50-over Cricket World Cup finals and been crowned world test champions.

If we want our best players to perform in pinnacle events - and to fund domestic and community cricket - then we have to be pragmatic.

New Zealand is not rich in cricketing or financial resources and the IPL has provided a mechanism to prolong a few Black Caps careers, while also creating an elite environment in which younger players such as Kyle Jameson can develop.

Now we hear talk that rugby wants to go down the IPL route. To assemble the world's finest players for a lucrative 12 a-side competition, under the banner of yet-to-be-finalised franchises.

I try hard to get enthused about rugby. Really I do.

But let's just take this season. Super Rugby Aotearoa was okay, but not a lot more than that. In following the tournament, fans would have been forgiven for thinking the Blues had lapped the rest of the field. In fact, for all the hot air talked and written about the Auckland-based franchise, it was actually the Crusaders who again emerged victorious.

From there we had a, frankly, Mickey Mouse add-on involving Australian sides that did nothing to promote the game.

We've since seen the All Blacks annihilate teams from Tonga, Fiji, Australia and Argentina.

None of these matches have been contests, or even remotely entertaining. Although the concept of rugby entertainment is a pretty relative one, given what we witnessed in 2021's "marquee" series between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions.

As rugby is currently constituted, Tonga, Fiji, Australia and Argentina have absolutely no chance of competing with the All Blacks. We hope South Africa can provide stiffer opposition, but hope is the operative word.

A feature of this season's tests, for me, has been how rarely the ball is in play, how often the weaker team are penalised or have players sent to the sin bin and how long is spent by the Television Match Official scouring replays for potential foul play.

And if they're not looking for skulduggery, then they're wasting an eternity deciding if someone has legitimately scored a try or not.

Rugby's laws don't help the spectacle, with the game barely able to go two phases before the referee finds fault with someone. And let's not even start with the endless bore of reset scrums.

Unlike cricket, rugby needs change. The game is in disrepair. There are too many people on the park - eliminating too much space - too few genuine contests and too many laws that enable referees to play too big a part in proceedings.

I don't know if 12 players is the answer, but I do know that seven- and 10-a-side haven't been.

If I have any fear of reducing numbers, it's that you merely become a poorer version of rugby league, with token scrums and lineouts and every player built like Sonny Bill Williams.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR), like their counterparts in cricket, need a hand here. They need a device, other than sending players for sabbaticals in Japan, to assist with their massive wage bill.

If anyone should welcome a competition such as the World 12s - that puts money in elite All Blacks' pockets - then it's NZR.

As for us fans, we're screaming out for a spectacle. We want to be entertained and to see the best competing with the best.

Test rugby rarely provides that anymore. The good teams are forever rotating their players, while the poorer ones can't even access theirs.

A franchise model removes the international inequalities that exist and simply puts all of rugby's elite players on display. They go to auction, they get bought by whoever wants them and they get on with it.

With all due respect to the United States, Wales and Italy, I could care less about watching them play the All Blacks later this year.

Let's hope this year's tests against South Africa are worthwhile. Just as it would be nice to think the All Blacks' clashes with Ireland and France will be contests, come November.

But four games of consequence - out of 15 - isn't enough in an All Blacks season.

I don't know if 12s is the answer, but I do know the current model isn't.

We are being sold a faulty product and we should applaud anyone who's promoting plans to fix it.

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