I went to a Rugby Union game one night recently, followed by an Aussie Rules game the following night. The contrast could not be greater. I once found Union an interesting game, especially when the Barbarians were playing (a guest team dedicated to attractive play, rather than winning). But over recent years I’ve found I prefer Rugby League to Union and AFL by far to either. Whatever happened to Union? It seems to have missed the changes which most games have made to themselves to become more attractive to spectators wanting more action, more entertainment. I have some ideas for how it could catch up.Union seems Stuck in Time
What struck me watching the first ‘live’ game of Union I had seen for several years was the huge amount of playing time taken up by scrums, lineouts, penalty kicks, shots at goal and allowance for injuries. Statistics from The Conversation suggest that around 50% of the playing time is spent actually playing, so the $76 I paid for the game cost me $2 per minute of actual play (80 minutes x 50%).
In addition, it is simply very hard to see the ball when a scrum is formed, despite the rule change requiring a player to release the ball in a tackle. Finally, the penalties are so technical (eg handling in the ruck, failure to release the ball, throw in not straight, coming in from the wrong side) that it is difficult to have much idea why a penalty is given. .
Other games have significantly changed their rules in recent years. Aussie Rules allows players to virtually play on after a point, penalises deliberate out of bounds, allows play on (quite the norm) and has a limited time (30 secs) for a player to take a kick from a mark. League has a sin bin to discourage unsportsmanlike play (which causes injuries), starts the next play/tackle when forward progress is stopped and limits how a tackle can take place (no spear tackles, more head tackle protection). Hockey has done away with offside. Basketball has abandoned the jump ball and awards the ball alternatively to either side.
All these changes make these games more attractive by taking out delaying tactics or elements that slow the game down. This is not to say all games are perfect – changes are being made all the time – but other games are actively making their sports more attractive, quicker.
The evidence of union’s lack of attractiveness is in numbers attending. The Melbourne Rebels v NSW Waratahs game attracted 5,000 people. The Hawthorn v Essendon AFL game next day attracted 80,000. Average code crowds reflect these figures. Union is losing it. What can be done?
Improving Union as a Spectacle
First, reduce scrums to 3 people, like League, and make them effectively irrelevant. In fact, why not just give the ball to the team with the put in and let them start the game from there. The technicalities of getting a scrum formed, set, engaged and in play are so boring and time wasting that spectators would see much more play. The game would be much more alive. Scoring would increase. Players need not be so big.
Second, abandon lineouts. Give the ball to the relevant team to throw in wherever they like (or backwards if you want to be a traditionalist). Another huge gain in time for spectators to watch real play.
Third, if Union insists on retaining the outdated offside rule (getting rid of this would be another huge improvement, but a bridge too far for the bureaucracy I fear…), when a tackle is made, anyone can scoop the ball up on its release. Players not releasing would get a yellow card. Two yellow cards and you are off (just like soccer).
Fourth, give a team a maximum time to take a penalty (20 secs?) and a kick at goal (30 secs?). These are important aspects of winning a game, but teams should win by scoring tries, not kicking penalties.
Fifth, change the colour of the ball to a fluorescent colour for night matches at least, just as tennis changed its ball to yellow (who remembers the white ball?) and cricket varies its ball according to the game and time. This way, spectators can see what is going on – another advantage to spectators.
Sixth, stop the clock for injuries and for when the ball is dead. This would make the game longer in actual playing time. However, given the lack of energy-sapping, boring scrums, there would be plenty of bodies available across the field, just as there are in League, to last the extra actual playing time.
I’m sure other changes could be made but these would make a huge improvement. I used to enjoy Union, but I won’t go to another game unless it’s more engaging, entertaining and alive than currently.