Are constant law changes ruining rugby?

2015-02-23 11:29

It is Super Rugby time and once again, we have to deal with further changes to the laws. It must be the only sport where at the start of the season only the coaches, players and referees know exactly how the new laws work (maybe). It will take the spectators some time to get used to it and in the mean time there will be complaints about the referees’ interpretations after every match. What does it say about my beloved game of rugby when every year, the administrators imply that they are not happy with how the game was played last season and it needs to be changed to be better?

The 2015 version of the laws for Rugby Union comes in a tome of 212 pages with total of 22 laws taking up 144 pages. This year the 14 amendments that were piloted in 2013 entered the law (including laws on substitution, clothing, third match official jurisdiction, conversion, knock-on, ruck, maul, line-out, scrum and penalty & free kicks). In addition, refinements relating to in-goal, rucks and line-outs were also introduced.

The 2013 overhaul of the laws of the game follows a large overhaul in 2009, which made 13 changes to laws, including introducing the assistant referee, changing to 22 play, quick throws, line-outs, scrums and changing the laws surrounding corner posts. Over the previous period since rugby became a professional sport in 1995, many laws had changed surrounding substitutions, yellow & red cards, tackling, scrums, line-outs and many others. To most rugby supporters, the laws of the current game are unrecognisable from the format they learnt when they were children.

I understand the arguments that the changes to laws were mainly done for safety reasons, but I believe that there is more to this. There also appears to be a trend towards changing laws to try and make the game more attractive and to allow teams to be more evenly matched. There is also to some extent a tug-of-war between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere to introduce laws that suit their style of play.

Regardless of the reasons behind law changes, I believe that the end is by no means in sight. Rugby law changes appear to have become an industry into itself with more new laws being proposed and trialled as we speak. In the Varsity Cup (competition between University Rugby teams) there is already a new set of laws being applied with a different scoring system, 2 referees on the pitch and different laws on calling a mark.

I would not be surprised if the powers that be are once again itching to introduce the next large overhaul to the laws of the game. As a spectator, I am concerned that if this trend continues, it could do more damage to the game than good and I am worried that it will be a permanent feature of our rugby enjoyment (if past track record is anything to go by).

In comparison to Rugby Union, FIFA’s 17 football laws are dealt with in a short 46 pages and have remained largely unchanged over the past 20 years. The last significant change occurred in 1992 with the introduction of the back-pass law for goal keepers and the introduction of goal-line technology in 2012. The introduction of red and yellow cards is but a distant memory and occurred in 1970.

I do not dispute that football is a simpler game than rugby with much fewer intricacies and risks when it comes to contact and fixed play and as a result requires fewer laws. I am however, concerned with the fact that rugby lacks the continuity in laws that football has. Football fans understand the laws of their game much better than rugby fans and it is easier for new players to be introduced to the game and to move through the ranks (with fewer law changes between school and professional football). At least in part, I think that the simplicity and continuity in football adds to its attraction, prevalence and strong growth worldwide. Rugby, on the other hand garners much less support, is much less prevalent and is not growing as fast. I, as a lover of rugby, would like to see this change.

In my opinion, as a spectator of the game, the constant changes to rugby laws, damages the game in a number of ways:

  • It reduces the potential enjoyment that supporters get from the game – so many stoppages during a regular game of rugby do not make sense to the audience until the referee states what the infringement was. In my opinion, the supporters of rugby should understand the game and the majority should agree with every decision (but law changes and complexity makes this difficult);
  • It opens up each match to additional interpretation – the role of the referee becomes more and more important with constant law changes and the risk of incorrect interpretation increases, which could lead to wrong decisions affecting the outcome of games. So often after a match, there is more discussion about the referee than the teams’ performances. That can’t be right.
  • It increases barriers to entry for new players and players that want to continue with the game as they constantly have to learn new laws;
  • It adds an additional burden on coaches, trainers and teams – much time has to be spent on understanding and learning new laws that could have been spent training to play the game better;
  • It puts a burden on development – much of the time, money and effort spent on creating, perfecting, rolling-out and learning new laws could have rather been spent on getting more people involved in the game of rugby (including in previously disadvantaged communities); and
  • It limits the growth of the game – in addition to the reasons mentioned above, I think it send the wrong message when a sport is constantly saying (in effect by changing the laws) that we are not happy with the game we played last year and we have to change it. If we, the insiders of the world of rugby are not happy with the game, why should new entrants be happy with it?

So, what am I asking for? I am saying that the powers that be in our game of rugby should adopt a new and different approach to law changes. Do not change laws for the sake of changing laws. Do not change it to more evenly balance teams or hemispheres. Do not change it to make the game more “enjoyable” for the audience. Only make changes that are crucial (to safety) and please make them very infrequently.

Please give us a break. Let us enjoy this beautiful game, let us understand it, let it be about how teams perform and not about how laws are interpreted and don’t make it so much work for us.

What do you think of my view? Do the constant law changes bug you or don’t you mind? Do you think these changes are necessary to make the game safer, more enjoyable and better? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill? Let me know what you think.

In the mean time, keep your talking straight!

Marius Strydom is the owner of MLAX Consulting

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