While Super Rugby Aotearoa was a breath of fresh air for anyone lucky enough to catch the free-running New Zealand competition, the reality is that rugby as a sport has become less and less audience friendly as the years have passed.
That’s one of the key messages from David Moffet, the former New Zealand Rugby, NRL and Welsh Rugby Union chief executive who believes that World Rugby aren’t taking the game of rugby in the right direction.
“I’ve been a little bit disconcerted with the way in which rugby’s going and I think that it’s become so complicated with the constant law changes and the different way the interpretations are being changed all the time,” Moffet tells RugbyPass of his new venture. “It’s become too complicated for coaches, players, referees and, most importantly, the fans.”
Not one to simply bleat on about how the game is becoming stale without proposing a solution, however, Moffet has set about to change the way the game is played and has today announced the genesis of an almost entirely new game, dubbed ‘Rugby Rules’.
“I was having a conversation with [former Pumas and Wallabies prop] Topo Rodriguez and we felt that we could perhaps look at the laws but it became quickly evident that tinkering around with the laws – which is what World Rugby does – wasn’t going to get us anywhere different,” Moffet says. “So I think we eventually got to the point where we were heading towards a new game and that’s where it started.
There were a few catalysts for Moffet desiring change in the way the sport is played – primarily with regards to the entertainment and safety of the modern game of rugby.
“Ball-in-play at the last World Cup was something like 34, 35 minutes,” says Moffet.
“The scrums are a nightmare. The resets are just so boring. They eat up so much time. It’s the same for lineouts. The amount of time taken to throw the ball in at lineouts and get the lineout set and the amount of time it takes for a team throwing the ball in to actually get to the lineout… I mean, we’re moving away so far away from what I think the game should be all about.”
That’s where Rugby Rules comes in – a sport that Moffet hopes will be more attractive for players and fans alike that borrows the best rules of the traditional game while introducing a few modernisations to improve the spectacle.
The major changes include a reduction in the number of players on the field (down to six forwards and eight backs), creating safer (but no less competitive) contests in lineouts and breakdowns, opening up more space on the field and giving greater powers to the referee while limiting coaches’ input during a game.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 18, 2020
Moffet laments the fact that at the highest levels, the game now seems to be controlled by the chess masters in the grandstands while not enough decision-making is handled by the players on the field. Coaches are now able to regularly deliver messages to players through waterboys and other personnel, which takes autonomy of the park.
That’s only made possible thanks to the – at times – relatively muddling pace of the game, with its ample stoppages and slow-downs.
Reducing player numbers and limiting where on the field lineouts and scrums can take place will also reward teams actually running the ball, instead of some matches devolving into kicking contests.
The safety aspect is just as important to Moffet as the added entertainment factor that he hopes Rugby Rules may provide.
Off the ball hits and high shots have become part and parcel of the game despite being outlawed in the rules. That’s primarily due to the way the breakdown is officiated, says Moffet.
“They call it a ruck but it’s not a ruck; it’s just like Greco-Roman wrestling on the ground.
“Having been a referee, I find it absolutely incredible that the laws allow cleaning out – which is basically attacking someone without the ball. I think it’s dangerous. Brodie Retallick is a very good example with what happened to him prior to the last World Cup, and I don’t think he was at his best as a result of it.”
Moffet is referring to RG Snyman cleaning out Retallick from a ruck during New Zealand’s match against South Africa in last year’s Rugby Championship. While, to the letter of the law, Snyman had nothing to answer for, Retallick was in a prone position and the hit from Snyman led to a dislocated shoulder and almost three months on the sidelines for the All Blacks lock.
While the short-term impact of the clean out robbed New Zealand of one of their best players for much of the season, it’s the long-term effects of hits that are allowed during the breakdown contest that Moffet is more concerned about.
“It’s not so much the injuries that they get now and that they will overcome now but it’s what it’s going to be like for these players 20 or 30 years down the track if we continue to allow that sort of thing to happen,” Moffet says.
It’s a similar story in the lineouts, where the advent of lifting has reduced the athletic contest while also making competitions for the ball a relatively dangerous affair.
“It’s all very well for highly trained athletic players to be lifted in the lineout but when you get down into the age-grades and what have you, it can be very dangerous when players are either being pulled down or aren’t getting supported correctly. We’ve seen a lot of injuries from that.”
Moffet is well-aware of the obstacles he currently faces to actually take Rugby Rules from a concept to reality.
“I’ll put it this way: I think we’ve done the easy part,” he says. “Coming up with the Rugby Rules and the rules of it, I think that’s been relatively simple. The hard part is going to be what we do now, the implementation of it.
“We need to get some teams playing the sport to see just exactly what the consequences of these rules are. We’ve put this in front of coaches, players, administrators and thus far we’ve had quite a good response. We’ve had some very positive feedback and made a couple of little changes here and there as well because you’re never going to get it right on your first try.”
And while Moffet is eager for feedback on the concept and to see it played on a park instead of simply in his head, the former NZR chief executive doesn’t want the game dictated by the coaches in the same way he believes rugby is now.
“World Rugby have allowed certain coaches to dictate the way in which they think the game should be played,” says Moffet.
“A new way of playing the game or law interpretation comes out and then instead of saying ‘the law is this, coach to that,’ they come out and they say, ‘okay, well we’ll interpret it the way you want it interpreted and then we will fiddle around with the interpretations’ and I just don’t think that that’s the right way of going about.”
It’s still very early days for David Moffet and Topo Rodriquez’s new rugby code which borrows a little from the past and, hopefully, a lot from the future. There’s no doubt that it’s an ambitious project for the man who helped significantly restructure the Welsh Rugby Union in the early 2000’s but it’s a project that could revolutionise the way the game is played.
Watch this space.
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