Matt Williams: Rugby is getting in the way of its own success

Arcane laws and increasingly complex officiating need to be urgently addressed

As if to openly defy the pandemic gloom, clubs in Super Rugby and the Heineken Cup are playing inspiring, creative, running rugby. In recent weeks there have been high-quality matches that have produced dramatic climaxes and breathtaking tries.

The performances from teams like Leinster, Toulouse, Waikato and Queensland should have World Rugby rubbing their hands with glee. Not only is their style of attack great fun for kids to play, but it is also sensational entertainment that audiences will pay to watch. Top-quality running rugby is a valuable product that sells.

While our leading teams are trying to be positive, many arcane laws and complex officiating, all directly controlled by World Rugby, are still creating too many awful matches.

Rugby is getting in the way of its own success.


The Heineken Cup quarter-final weekend displayed rugby’s schizophrenia.

On Saturday we were served up patches of wonderful rugby from La Rochelle, Exeter and Leinster. Just 24 hours later, both the all-French quarter-finals were blighted by rugby's unjust laws and a farcical number of long stoppages that have leached their way into the game.

The two English referees, Matthew Carley and Luke Pearce, awarded a total of 53 penalties. No tries were scored in either match but a staggering 25 penalty goals were kicked.

Ninety seconds is allowed for each shot at goal, which means that just over 37 minutes of the two quarter-finals was consumed with penalty kicks. Farcical, ridiculous and boring.

The laws and the way our officials have been trained to implement them hindered four quality teams from performing.

Rugby’s system for rewarding points is unjust. The injustice lies in the points rewarded undervaluing the complexity of the skill and teamwork required to score a try in a dynamic environment compared to stopping the game so an individual can kick for goal. In our overly officiated game, penalties from technical infringements are determining matches.

That was never the purpose of rugby. Sadly, the entire framework of the game has mutated away from encouraging positivity towards laws and officiating supporting the negative.

The greatest example of this is the acceptance of constant time wasting from players and officials. The remarkable rise in the embarrassingly long and overly complicated conversations between the referees and TMOs must be addressed.

Extraordinary exchange

When the Racing flanker Baptiste Chouzenoux made obvious shoulder contact to the head of a Bordeaux player, referee Matthew Carley commenced an extraordinary exchange with his TMO, that more resembled an emotionally torn dialogue between Heathcliff and Catherine from Wuthering Heights.

This was accompanied by 24 (go and count them ladies and gentlemen, 24) replays of the one high tackle. It was so appalling that all I could do was join the TV commentators in laughing. Sadly this type of exchange is happening multiple times in matches.

In these quarter-finals the officials’ actions were the centre of attention. Sadly that is now common across the globe. It is the referees who are determining the outcome of matches instead of the skill of our players. This is the personification of neglected governance that has raced horribly out of control. No other sport in the world has its matches so interrupted and the outcomes so influenced by its officials.

These quarter-finals, like every game, were further damaged by long stoppages caused by the self-indulgent ritual of the forwards standing about doing absolutely “bugger all” before binding at scrums.

I know there are people inside World Rugby who desperately want change. However, the politics inside the organisation are so conflicted that the actions of the rugby department are often blunted.

This is not a new phenomenon.

Twenty yeas ago the then International Rugby Board attempted to bypass its dysfunctional legislative process, by using its judicial system to implement change. It was the judiciary that cited players and used heavy sanctions to drive the use of feet at the ruck from the game. It was done with misguided concern for safety. The law of unintended consequences materialised and has resulted in today's breakdowns being far more dangerous than when rucking with feet was allowed.

This has created a fear of law change inside World Rugby. However, this does not diminish the fact that all of these issues and many more are a direct result of a failure of governance from World Rugby.