Rugby World puts forward a few game-changing proposals
20 Ways To Shake Up Rugby
Over the past year there has been criticism that rugby is in a slump, turning off some fans and failing to attract others. But things don’t have to be set in stone. Here are a few game-changing proposals…
20 Ways To Shake Up Rugby
1. Less is more strategy
Adding more and more matches, tournaments and events to an already overcrowded calendar is not the answer, even if there is a need to replenish Covid-depleted coffers.
It can be hard for rugby fans to keep track of the different competitions taking place, the oversaturated market creating confusion, while clubs are often without their stars due to fixture overlaps.
People talk of the rarity value of the British & Irish Lions increasing its appeal, but that philosophy is not used in other areas of rugby. Less can be more – and if player welfare truly was the game’s top priority it is an attitude that should be more readily applied.
Of course, the key to all this is the long-hoped-for ‘global season’, where calendars in the northern and southern hemispheres are aligned, Internationals don’t clash with club competitions.
Not only would it make fixtures more meaningful but it would put a stop to the endless rows – club v country, country v country, everyone v World Rugby – that so often mar the sport’s image and make it look amateurish.
2. A stars and stripes World Cup
Not until the ninth Rugby World Cup did World Rugby take the sport’s global showpiece outside the traditional market. Japan 2019 was a roaring success – and USA can be too. The States have a fully pro rugby league, magnificent sports stadiums and an appetite for putting on a show. The nation is ripe for rugby expansion.
World Rugby has named the USA as its preferred candidate for RWC 2031 and you hope corporate America will jump on board if the bid is ultimately successful.
Attendances for big Tests in the USA have been mixed, though there have been sellouts at Soldier Field in Chicago. A home World Cup could change all that.
3. Broaden horizons
Zach Mercer swapped Bath for Montpellier in the summer, effectively ending any hopes of adding to his two England caps over the next few years. But what if he storms the Top 14 while the No 8s available to Eddie Jones suffer injuries or a dip in form?
Is the RFU policy of not selecting players outside of England, or All Blacks having to be based in New Zealand for that matter, not too limiting?
Why should players be penalised for going overseas when those experiences can help them develop and upskill? Let’s be open-minded about players exploring new environments. After all, we often praise coaches for learning from plying their trade around the world.
4. Research, research, research
It’s been described as sport’s ‘gender data gap’: the lack of scientific information around female physiology, the training techniques that work best for women, what the best nutrition advice is…
There must be more research done into how female players are affected by brain injuries (the mouthguard study involving the Red Roses and Black Ferns is a good start), menstrual cycles, training techniques, etc. Data from male players can’t simply be applied to women.
5. TMO Tannoy
When there is a TMO referral, the conversation between the officials should be played out over the stadium speakers.
At present, those watching on TV or listening on the radio (or fans in the crowd with access to a ref radio, which aren’t available at all matches) are in a better position to understand what is going on and that shouldn’t be the case.
6. Humanise referees
Many moons ago, RW attended a Super Rugby game at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. After the match, the coaches had their say, then the referee came in to answer any queries the media might have.
The exchange not only brought clarity to certain decisions on the field but served as a reminder that the referees are intrinsic to the whole process: they are just as human as everyone else!
Let’s hear more from the referees. They can play a valuable role in educating spectators and TV viewers, as Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens have started to do in recent years.
7. Jonah Lomu Rugby 2.0
More than 20 years have passed since Jonah Lomu Rugby was released and it’s still seen as the best rugby video game, despite all the advances in technology since.
It’s a huge hole in the market and now EA has acquired Codemasters, who published that Lomu game back in 1997, there is hope that the rugby equivalent of FIFA may not be too far away.
8. Drop the mic
Why do sports broadcasters keep intruding on people’s space? Pro players preparing for a match don’t want to have a mic shoved in their face minutes before kick-off. Their mind is elsewhere – as the TV interviewers should be.
Let’s talk to players as they warm up!, it began. Let’s talk to them as they come off at half-time! Hey, can we talk to them while they’re playing? No, no, no! You’ll not get pearls of wisdom from an athlete in game mode, so stop trying too hard.
Leave the playing field to the players, it should be their domain only.
9. Standalone window
The pandemic forced a rethink to the Women’s Six Nations scheduling last year, moving it out of the shadows of the men’s championship and putting those matches live on BBC channels.
The women’s event will again be played at a different time in 2022, from late March into April, and that standalone window should remain in future years.
It provides a bigger platform to promote the women’s game and attract audiences, although the competition sorely needs more, well, competition. One-sided scorelines are never a good advert, so there needs to be a rise in standards and investment too.
10. Go green
As the impact of climate change continues to grow, we should all be looking to take steps to reduce our impact on the environment. One area where rugby could improve is kits.
Firstly, let’s get more shirts made from recycled materials. Fair play to adidas, who have used recycled plastic waste found on coastlines to produce jerseys for NZ’s Super Rugby teams, Harlequins, Leinster, the All Blacks and Black Ferns, while Pau and Macron last year launched the first replica Top 14 shirt made entirely from recycled materials. But there are still plenty of less sustainable options out there.
Secondly, do we need new kits every season? This increases waste, not to mention that it is expensive for fans.
11. Supercharge sevens
The Olympics showed the appeal of sevens, not just with the skills on display but the characters involved. Yet this format has arguably been hit hardest by the pandemic, with many unions cutting back or even scrapping their programmes.
England have reinstated theirs – and with equal pay – but all sevens stars deserve proper funding. Rather than investing in new competitions and formats, why not improve those we already have?
While on the subject of sevens, how about Team GB compete on the World Sevens Series so they’re in a better position come the Olympics instead of players from England, Scotland and Wales coming together last minute?
Surely a GB programme, with help from the National Lottery, would work? Talent could be scouted from across the home unions.
12. Board level
We’ve been banging this drum for a while but we’ll keep doing so until there is tangible change: there needs to be more diversity amongst the game’s top decision-makers.
Strides have been made to increase the number of women on boards and committees, particularly at World Rugby, but there is still much to do. This isn’t just about increasing female representation but that of people of colour and those from outside traditional rugby territories.
Players must be more involved too. A lot of internationals-turned-administrators were in their pomp in the Eighties, and the game has changed a fair bit since! Current and recently retired players need more of a voice at the table.
13. Roaring Lionesses
Okay, England’s female footballers already have the name Lionesses sewn up, but that shouldn’t stop the British & Irish Lions launching a women’s team. Talk of feasibility studies has been going on for two years; now it’s time to start putting plans in place.
And those plans shouldn’t be a replica of the men’s format. Yes, a tour of NZ would be competitive, but not SA or Australia. The women’s Lions should branch out to new destinations – France would make for an outstanding tour.
14. Warning signs
Brain injuries are rightly rugby’s biggest concern. While lawmakers look to make the game safer with a zero tolerance approach to contact with the head, technology is used to monitor impacts and World Rugby proposes a limit on contact training, the other crucial approach is education.
This is particularly important at junior level. If in doubt, sit them out is a mantra all clubs and schools should follow, and resources on the signs of concussion must be easily accessible and continually promoted so people know what to look out for.
15. What’s the deal?
The RFU Championship and Premier 15s leagues have been described as the ‘Wild West’ in terms of contracts. Ben Ryan has spoken out about Pacific Islands players being exploited by unscrupulous agents.
There needs to be more stringent regulations around contracts and agents both at professional and semi-pro level. Players need to be better educated and sanctions need to be stricter for those clubs or agents who exploit players.
Biarritz prop Guy Millar’s PlayWize start-up is a great initiative, allowing players to create profiles and post clips, and clubs to search for players that fit the criteria they’re looking for. A few diamonds are sure to be unearthed, and it removes some of the cloak-and-dagger around who is out of contract.
While we’re at it, how about making players’ salaries public to avoid rumours around cap breaches? It works in the US.
16. Stop stoppages
A match is supposed to last 80 minutes, with ten to 15 minutes for half-time. These days matches can tick past two hours and the stop-start nature can be a turn-off, so how about we create more flow?
Clamp down on mini meetings ahead of lineouts, cut the faffing before scrums are set, put a countdown clock on the big screen for kickers – starting from when a penalty is awarded or try scored. That should speed things up, and add drama!
17. Cut the comms
This year’s Lions tour – and Rassie Erasmus’s waterboy role in particular – only served to highlight a growing issue: coaches and support staff talking to players on the pitch.
Can the 15 selected not be trusted to make decisions or read situations? Surely key messages are relayed in the week beforehand and any pertinent points can be made at half-time?
Anyone who is communicating with the coaches’ box shouldn’t be allowed on the pitch. Really, it should be only the medics coming on (and only for injuries, not to yell encouragement from the in-goal area!) – and they shouldn’t be passing on messages. If there’s an injury, they can radio the team manager.
Let players react to what is happening rather than dictate their every move.
18. Less trophy hunting
The Calcutta Cup dates back 150 years. The Bledisloe Cup has been contested since the 1930s. The Webb Ellis Cup is obviously the biggest prize in men’s rugby. But these days there seems to be a new trophy invented to mark nearly every fixture.
France and Italy battle for the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy, Australia and Wales have the James Bevan Trophy, Sam Whitelock lifted the Steinlager Trophy after the All Blacks beat Fiji in July! Too often the silverware is created simply to add a sponsor’s name or ribbons, so players can pose for a team shot in front of advertising banners. But is it really necessary?
There was no actual Triple Crown trophy awarded until 2006, but it’s doubtful that anyone who achieved that feat before then celebrated any less.
19. Maintain visibility
The loss of Premiership highlights from free-to-air TV is a blow. The fact most autumn Tests were on Amazon Prime may be cheaper than TV subscriptions but it’s also not as accessible, particularly with the WiFi speeds needed for a clear stream.
Channel 4 proved with their coverage of the US Open tennis final how big an impact terrestrial broadcasts can make, as has the BBC’s cricket coverage this year. Rugby needs to tap into that too. It’s worked for women’s rugby with millions tuning in to matches during the autumn.
Yes, highlights are often available for free on YouTube or social media, but not everyone has access or heads to the internet as a first port of call. Shows on free-to-air TV reach a different but important market. Even the appearance of ex-pros on big reality shows, like Ugo Monye on Strictly Come Dancing, can help boost rugby’s profile.
20. Prop stars
Last year statistician Russ Petty bemoaned the fact no prop had ever been nominated for World Rugby’s Men’s 15s Player of the Year award in our Rugby Rant.
Yet modern props have probably upped their skill-set more than any other position, adding deft touches to their work at set-piece and breakdown. The dancing feet of Tadhg Furlong and the brilliant hands of Taniela Tupou are prime examples. More praise for the props!
Let us know what you think about these ideas to shake up rugby – and if you have any of your own – by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s November 2021 edition.
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