The year 2023 marks the 200th anniversary of the apocryphal story of William Webb Ellis, the boy “who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it”.
Billy was the prototype of a long line of naughty boys and girls, who realised that the thinking of those setting the laws of the game of rugby lagged far behind those who were playing it.
It would appear that little has changed over the past two centuries.
During 2022 there has been a giant shift of intent from international teams on how they are approaching their attacking game. Across the globe a renewed mindset to run the ball has emerged. Players are leading a positive evolution away from the disastrous horrors of the negativity displayed by both teams during the Lions tour of South Africa in 2021.
Like the young Billy Ellis at Rugby school, today’s generation of players in France, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, Australia, Italy and Ireland have all decided to pick up the ball and run with it. And more power to them.
South Africa and England remain the recalcitrants. While overflowing with players of high talent who have the potential to be potent runners of the ball, both teams have a mindset rooted in the “bash and bosh” of physicality to the detriment of their attacking game.
The only thing hindering us from enjoying watching more of this generation of positive players are the laws of the game itself. Today’s games only have the ball in play for desperately small glimpses across the 80 minutes, and while the intent of the coaches and players is obviously positive, pedantic officiating of a law book that is far too large is robbing the game of having the ball in play for longer periods of time.
Here let us remember that when the Wallabies’ strategy forced the Springboks to attack during the Adelaide Test match this season the ball was in play for an unbelievably and desperately low 28 minutes.
You would expect a response of significant magnitude from a governing body faced with such a mind-blowing statistic that for 52 minutes of a major Test match absolutely nothing was happening.
With many games having over 26 penalties, and scrums that can take two minutes to set, riddled with conversations between TMOs and referees that are so complicated they more resemble a Monty Python sketch than officials making decisions, the areas that need to be reformed are vast.
Last week World Rugby announced an exceptionally disappointingly small list of law reforms. While there was plenty of talk about stopping time-wasting, there was little substance in the changes.
World Rugby refuses to even consider trials that would increase the value of tries to seven points and align penalty goals, drop goals and conversions at two points. These would not change any on-field laws but they will change players’ decision-making and their coaches’ mindset to seek tries and not shots at penalty goals.
The new mandate that forces scrums to be ready to pack within 30 seconds of the referees’ whistle and stopping the forwards from forming a huddle before every lineout are welcome and very positive steps, but nothing has been done to reduce the tsunami of match-deciding penalties that come from highly-dubious refereeing decisions at scrums.
If all scrum infringements were returned to the laws of the 1980s, when only free kicks could be awarded, no laws would need to be changed. However, this would stop the current exploitation of the law that has almost every team on the planet scrummaging for penalties, without a care for winning possession.
Returning scrum infringements to free kicks would greatly reduce the number of shots at goal and penalty kicks for touch. The knock-on effect would mean a reduction in lineouts and the endless mauls that sees hookers scoring far more tries than centres.
Backline attacks from scrums would also once again flourish and produce a beautiful by-product in the return of the brilliant backrow moves of the past.
World Rugby did not address the possibility of using substitutions only at half-time and the 60-minute mark that would greatly reduce disjointed second-half stoppages.
They also reinforced that the TMO cannot make independent decisions without the referees’ leadership, as is the practice in rugby league. Enshrining the single power of the referee when the TMO is called upon means that the ridiculously long conversations between the TMO and match referee will continue.
All of the above suggestions require minimal changes to the laws, which could easily have been trialled to create fewer stoppages and more time with the ball in play to increase the enjoyment of the players and spectators.
Nor did World Rugby give any real clarity to the referee’s decision-making regarding the farcical use of yellow cards for players attempting to intercept a pass.
Instead of World Rugby simply placing the responsibility on the attacking player passing the ball and deciding that any pass that a defender can touch is a bad pass, so any hand contact on the ball should only be regarded as a knock on, they have created more grey area for officials to interpret.
It does appear that a yellow card has been dropped as a sanction for a deliberate knock on, however, time will tell if the referees agree with this interpretation.
While World Rugby did say that players are entitled to attempt to intercept a pass but – and it’s big but – the referee must still decide if it is a deliberate knock on.
While there was a statement that “players must not waste time,” and there is a new limit on the time taken on penalty shots at goal to 60 seconds, which is welcomed, the root cause of the giant chunks of lost time to the ocean of penalties that the massive law book produces was not addressed in any meaningful manner.
A few symptoms have been addressed but the disease itself still has hold of rugby’s body.
The lack of real change is a testament to World Rugby’s political gridlock and its internal inability to produce meaningful law reform. If ever there was a time when rugby needed another Billy Ellis to radically change the no-longer-fit-for-purpose laws, it is now.