As yet another rugby variation arrives, we ponder why this latest saviour should push out all the other add-on versions

Opinion: World 12s rugby and the promise of the new

It never got as far as investigating if other schools played it. As far as we were concerned, Mr Hutchison invented the sport of ‘Diddly-Dee’ and no one outside of Dundee deserved to know about this magical version of rugby. 

But in years gone by, my brothers and I – over a few drinks admittedly – have wondered what a global version of the game would look like. 

Effectively, a mass of players are split into two sides, randomly. Those two are then split up again so that they line up as equally as possible (numbers always varied) behind four cones on each side. With a smallish field of play, with a try-line either side, the ref would call out a sequence of numbers, then toss a ball in the middle. After players ran round their own try-line the ball would be picked up and we’d play until someone scored. If there was a big obvious error, say a knock-on, you were out.

So if there was a shout of ‘one, one, three’, then two players from behind cone one on either side and one player from cone three on either side would hare off round their try-line, then come tearing in to play three-on-three. Sometimes, the mischievous ref would bark out one number and it would be a one-versus-one situation. If they screamed “DIDDLY-DEE!” then every single player would take to the field in a scene of superb chaos. 

World 12s rugby

Springboks play two-sided games in training (Getty Images)

Now imagine that game with Cheslin Kolbe and Michael Hooper and Brodie Retallick and Tom Curry in the mix. The stuff of pipe dreams, right? 

Well in 2021, you might be left asking why the hell not. You need to get your ideas in fast because, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just been introduced to the World 12s concept. 

Related: New World 12s tournament explained

Never mind that the 15-a-side Rugby World Cup is the financial engine of the Test game or that there are highly ambitious men’s and women’s league competitions, with new professional entities trying to push through.

Never mind that the woefully-underfunded international sevens (a sport on the go since the Victorian age) is an Olympic hit.

Never mind that some incredible talents have come to the game via touch or that there are long-standing and beloved summer sevens, tens and beach rugby circuits. 

It may already sound like a lot. But none of them are spinning the money that the Rugby World Cup is. 

And lest we forget, in the cases of those other events where elite players are involved, the big competitions have governing bodies and unions and pre-existing limited companies wrapped around them. Or venture capitalists snapping up chunks of the established. We are even seeing those established entities determined to turn all of autumn into a ‘World Cup Lite’. It remains to be seen if that autumn jamboree will eventually generate the revenue rugby needs but let’s blur past that for now.

If there’s any gold rush to be had by outsiders right now, it’s an enticing idea to invent something truly new and truly theirs, away from those entities. If it’s a closed shop, set up your own next door. 

We have World 12s now, but the other year we had Rugby X, a five-a-side version that hasn’t really bounced back. The independent sevens and tens competitions being explored may not have the slick of gloss some World Cup-winning coaches and proven board-pleasers can offer to investors. 

But in the instance of the 12s – which has since prompted a tired-sounding response from World Rugby, who concluded, “comprehensive consultation with the organisers is required to understand the viability of the concept, particularly in the context of ongoing global calendar discussions and the priority area of player welfare” – we are yet again being told that a new game is vital to converting attention-poor youngsters to the church of rugby union. 

Related: Rugby’s Fight For Gen Z

A carrot for signing up to this new venture, it has been asserted, is that athletes get a bit of a say and that (let’s be clear, fullas) there’s some more money going around for them. Now, independent new sevens events have long been touted as a way for super-talented sevens stars to make some more money. After all, theirs is a sport where many unions can nary muster a care about paying them. But these are not the big fish the powers behind the 12s want to attract. 

The World 12s lives and dies on whether the best XVs players in the world are in, willing to give up three more rugby weeks to an event. Fingers crossed, their employers think this is a spiffing idea too and it does all end up with tiny halves and limited play for these megastars, as is being suggested. 

This all comes at a time when arguably the most pressing issue in the game is aligning global calendars so that existing club events and national competitions and versions of the sport don’t cannibalise each other’s time or marketability or talent, or chew up the participants. Now another group is throwing in yet another saviour sport. It sounds like so much “Diddly-Dee!”

World 12s rugby

Test rugby can be divisive these days (Getty Images)

We are being asked to face up to the fact that elite Test rugby as it exists now has too many areas of consternation: too much mess; too much aversion to risk; too much grey for officials. This, some are saying, is rugby as it could be, but just with a couple of players knocked off each team to create space. You can hear the Hallelujahs already. No one believes as hard as a convert and all that. 

Perhaps players will buzz off this new idea. Measuring yourself against the very best is always appealing. So is more money and a near-negligible amount of game time. Hey, staying at the very elite end of the club and international game, and then playing an additional three weeks of 12s certainly is a different way to earn more coin than, say, playing a far less taxing season in Japan.  

Related: Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

And if you are a spend-hungry sponsor or consortium, maybe a brand new rugby format is more appealing to you than backing established club and Test teams or, say, trying to support, lease or even take over the stricken World Sevens Series. 

Maybe fans can love it too. Yet more of your favourite Test stars out of established club colours and repping brand new fluoro-tinged, nomadic franchises? That could be fun!

But hear me out. If we’re making a point of parading out the biggest names in the game for a further three weeks, we could do something totally wild. We could also back Diddly-Dee. Think of the carnage, where elements of sevens interplay with 15s and there’s a bit of Gladiators and Bulldogs about it too. It’s not needed but that hardly seems to matter…

What do you think of the new World 12s tournament? Email with your views or contact us via social media. 

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