World Rugby must step up in these fragile times.
Professional clubs and competitions around the world, in rugby and almost any sport you care to name, are struggling to survive; no one knows how badly they will be damaged.
Rugby is in much peril, as Gregor Paul pointed out here . That's particularly so in cash-strapped New Zealand where we do not have billionaire club owners or the population to sustain life-giving broadcast revenue on our own. Australia? They were on the brink of penury even before the virus.
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If we accept that rugby will continue to survive in some form, it might be a good time to focus on just what form it should take. The virus-enabled halt is potentially disastrous – but it is also an opportunity for World Rugby to make some real, meaningful and revolutionary change.
That would be change in two areas – first, rugby's traditional but now outmoded hemispherical structure which produces a disjointed, uneven and unfair environment. Second, the game's hideously complex rules ruining its visual appeal.
The coronavirus may be just the spur World Rugby needs to lever itself out of its hidebound strictures. It is already looking to shift some test fixtures to later in the year and will have to address bail-outs of national unions, costs, player salaries and the like.
More is needed. Much more. The game is under threat and many parts of the rugby empire – not least New Zealand – will suffer from financial blows from which recovery will be difficult.
Now is the time to act. World Rugby has something like $720 million arising from the last World Cup, which it uses to fund the global game. No one outside World Rugby knows exactly how deep the war chest is but it's time we did; the virus should enable not just a bail-out but a wholesale revamp of the world game.
The ludicrously discarded Nations Championship – designed to move rugby into a genuinely global format – should be brought into full being post-haste. The only reason it foundered in the first place was that two veto-empowered unions (Scotland and Ireland) voted it down because they didn't like the prospect of relegation to Tier Two.
Whatever else the coronavirus has done, it has shown that such provincial, protectionist thinking is woefully misplaced. It's time to move; time to make it a genuinely global game, not just centre it in the northern hemisphere.
But change will depend on something rugby is not good at – moving quickly and huge constitutional change in rugby's halls of power, a previously unshakeable alliance of traditional northern unions.
The global competition proposal was that, over a 12-year spread, the Six Nations and Rugby Championship would be combined into a two-tier competition played annually, outside World Cup years. That would create a fairer spread of the sport's international rights money, which has traditionally favoured Europe's superpowers.
At the same time, there is an opportunity to make a global change to rugby's monumentally complex rules which – unless the referee is miked up to the crowd (and sometimes even then) – are impossibly confusing to those in the stadium. If rugby wants high attendances (when the virus has been defeated) it has to ensure those attending are (a) entertained and (b) informed.
So what about this as a wish list:
The offside rule - policed intermittently at best, it is the single greatest obstacle to open and entertaining rugby. The current defence domination will be reduced and tactics currently overdone (playing for territory, box kicks etc) lessened.
Scrums – to keep the ball in play more, time is turned off for scrums. However, to avoid endless re-sets, more than four in a game will see scrums de-powered, with the player judged to have caused the fourth re-set yellow-carded for 15 minutes and an automatic three-match suspension.
Scrum penalties – The scrum needs to remain a power battle for possession – but without endless penalties. Let the side with the ball use it and those without it try to regain it. The ref, instead of whistling infringements, would call for the ball to be used by whoever he judges has won possession – just as happens at ruck and mauls.
The rolling maul – the only time in rugby where players are allowed to progress offside, in front of the ball carrier. It should be outlawed or changed so that opposition players can come round the maul and attack the ball carrier.
Deliberate knockdowns – should be lessened by better policing of the offside rule but there also needs to be more recognition of reflex action versus intent. In clear cases of the latter, or a try-denying action, then apply a penalty/card. For all others – a knock-on.
Substitutes – teams can have a bench of up to 10 replacements. But only four players can be replaced. This opens up opportunities late in the game, often reduced when up to 8 replacements come on to the field; it lessens the chance of serious injuries when fresh, powerful players arrive; and it returns to the old adage that rugby is an 80-minute game, not a 23-player game, while increasing tactical management of the bench.