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How a well-intended New Zealand initiative could threaten the integrity of rugby

By Hamish Bidwell

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It’s a laudable idea.


New Zealand Rugby (NZR) are attempting to eliminate any potential impediments to the playing of club and secondary schools rugby in 2020.

Dubbed ‘Game On’, NZR’s new initiative will allow premier men’s club matches to be played by as few as 10 players per side, with rolling substitutions and maybe uncontested scrums. The same rules would apply to all adult and college grades.

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The Sky Sports NZ team brings you all the latest chat from around rugby in New Zealand as the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition draws nearer.
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The Sky Sports NZ team brings you all the latest chat from around rugby in New Zealand as the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition draws nearer.

In 10 a-side children’s rugby, if you only have seven players on Saturday, then the opposition will only field seven at a time themselves.

Again, these sound like good things.

In consultation with the match referee and opposing team, premier sides will need to come to an agreement about whether there will be pushing in the scrums. Finding four capable props every week isn’t easy for teams and it’s hoped that making scrums uncontested would mean fewer defaults.

In a season as disrupted and unusual as this one, the theory is that we want as many people playing as much rugby as we can.


Game On will be reviewed after this year and amended, if necessary, for implementation again in 2021.

Not every provincial union has to adopt Game On. Or they can choose to use it in some grades and not others.

NZR says Game On is already being utilised in some provinces, including at premier grade level.

The worry here, though, is the way these new protocols could be manipulated to one team’s advantage.


If Saturday’s opponents say they can’t rustle up any – or enough – props, who are you to argue? Never mind that strong scrummaging is integral to your own team’s success, if the opposition say they can only field a pack of eight loose forwards, then that’s that.

Among the reasons why rugby has connected with so many New Zealanders over the years is because it’s a broad church. Big or small, white or brown, fast or slow, tall or short, rugby had a place for you.

But as times change, and playing numbers dwindle, we seem to be going further and further down a path towards 10 a-side rugby and to a certain build of athlete. And, if we’re being absolutely honest, to a game that looks more and more like rugby league.

The NRL returned to our screens over the weekend, along with a couple of tweaks designed to make the game more free-flowing.

On average, the ball was in play for 57 of the 80 minutes and featured more tries, more play-the-balls, more linebreaks and fewer penalties than had been the case in the two rounds of football played before the COVID-19 lockdown.

That’s nice, but NRL head of football Graham Annesley said he’d been around too long to assume those trends would continue.

“I’m not complaining, but the coaches will be looking [at] how to counter the changes,’’ Annesley told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Rugby league identity Phil Gould has talked long and loud over the years about, what he calls, the “law of unintended consequences.’’

Of how well-intentioned officials, often in consultation with stakeholders, make changes to the game with certain outcomes in mind, only to find something quite different emerges instead.

We all recognise where rugby is going in this country. From next year, under-12 and 13 grades will change from 15 to 10 a-side. Under 11s have already gone that way.

For now, premier grade club teams have the option of playing 10 a-side. Before long it’s not hard to imagine that will become the norm.

If there are scrums, they’ll be of the five-man variety and won’t feature any pushing.

And, again, that’s fine. The game has to evolve and it has to adapt to its changing circumstances and maybe a time isn’t that far off when high-performance rugby goes 10 a-side as well

It’s just that, at that point, rugby will cease to be a game for all shapes and sizes and simply one in which everyone is 1.85cm and 100 kilograms. Heck, maybe we could even go under-85kg rugby across the board, eliminating great swathes of the current rugby-playing populous.

In the meantime, Game On’s rules look ripe for exploitation. For fair contests to be altered to become unfair ones and for relations between clubs and teams to turn sour.

It’s great that community rugby is about to kick off, but just be aware it might look a little different to how you remembered it.



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How a well-intended New Zealand initiative could threaten the integrity of rugby