‘One for the purists’, a ‘test of attrition’, a ‘classic slog’.
There are many charitable ways to describe Sunday’s semi-final match between Wales and South Africa. Unless you’re looking at just the final 10 minutes, however, you certainly wouldn’t have labelled the game exciting.
There were 73 kicks in the World Cup fixture, split almost evenly down the middle.
According to World Rugby’s 2018 Year in Review, the ball was in play for just under 38 minutes per tier one match last year, on average.
Assuming that number holds true for Sunday’s game, we were treated to a kick approximately every 31 seconds of the ball being in play – thrilling stuff.
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The issue isn’t necessarily the sheer number of kicks but the nature of them.
Defences have become harder and harder to penetrate in the international game. Wales and South Africa seemingly tried to get around this by simply hoisting high ball after high ball.
There are two major concerns with this approach.
The first, as noted, is that it doesn’t make for a very entertaining match. South African fans will dispute this, but you’ll find very few neutrals around the world that would have enjoyed Sunday’s game.
Frankly, the only thing that made the match semi-interesting was that fact that it was a World Cup knockout game.
Had the match been a regular-season international fixture between tier two or three teams then viewers would have turned off their tellies well before halftime.
The game can’t survive on the importance of fixtures alone, however, if the product itself is poor.
The second major issue with the up-and-under approach is that it creates a genuine concern for player safety – which has a flow-on effect on the integrity of a match.
Fans and pundits alike have been worried that the finals of the World Cup could be decided based on red cards – and there’s no better way to get yourself sent off than to make a dangerous challenge in the air.
Whilst there’s a fairly robust framework around dangerous tackles on the ground, the system is much less precise for in-air challenges.
Let’s just be thankful that no such framework was required on Sunday.
Wales have shown bravery and an iron-will but they ran out of bodies and luck against a muscular, calculated Springbok side leaving them with regrets as to what might have been
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 28, 2019
What, then, is the best solution to preventing kick-fests like what we saw in the second semi-final of 2019’s Rugby World Cup?
Perhaps rugby needs to turn to a long abolished law to disincentivise using the ‘Garyowen’ as a core-attacking play.
Prior to 1977, it was possible to claim a mark from a kick anywhere on the field – not just in one’s own 22.
Marks were a bit more complex back then.
The kicking team could advance up to where the mark was claimed, which forced the marker to drop back a few metres before taking an action.
It was also possible to kick a goal from a mark. This naturally minimised the number of kicks to hand that teams made from within their own half.
A modern approach to the rule could see the goal attempts eliminated, but quicks-taps awarded to a defending player who makes a mark anywhere in open play. Like any tap penalty, the defending side would need to retreat 10-metres away from the player who made the mark.
The marking player would then have a free run of at least a few metres before being tackled.
It’s an approach that would encourage greater ingenuity from quick-taps whilst also discouraging the uncreative bomb.
A more radical approach would also involve banning jumping in open-play. The benefit of allowing jumping is that it rewards athleticism, but the costs are far greater.
In all likelihood, we’ll see no response to the snore-fest that Wales and South Africa conjured up on Sunday evening. It was a one-off game, the likes of which we’ll hopefully never have to bear witness to again.
Let’s just hope that Saturday’s final doesn’t head in the same direction.
Eddie Jones wasn’t too happy with Warren Gatland suggesting that England might not be up for the final:
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