Last Saturday, Harlequins and Leicester attracted a crowd of 75,000 due to a lot of hard work done to make the off-field spectator experience good in terms of entertainment and atmosphere. On the field, both sides tried to play decent rugby, but there were interminable breaks in play that could be eradicated to make watching more enjoyable.
The problem is that administrators, coaches, players, referees and media do not view games in the same way as the average spectator. They are already interested parties and when these things happen, they are analysing, discussing and communicating – they are not just sitting there waiting for the action to resume.
They need to, as I did last Saturday, sit in the crowd with ordinary spectators and see what happens and what is said during these delays. For the crowd, nothing occurs, and they get frustrated and eventually bored. Remember that it is only by converting casual or first-time watchers that rugby will grow.
You should also note that the examples given could not be excused by officials having to check decisions or possible injuries to players; they happened because nobody wanted to do things differently and were content with the status quo.
There are four areas to focus on: kicks at goal, lineouts, scrums and defensive box kicks. The examples do not include occasions when officials were checking something else and some counted as ball-in-play time. Some advocate stopping the clock during delays, but that gives no incentive to get going and means referees and players dally because they think time is made up. This makes games last longer and the average first-class match is now taking almost 100 minutes. What does not change is the fact that for the spectator it is time when, for all practical purposes, nothing happens.
I would remove conversions and make a try seven points. Why should a thrilling back movement, resulting in a try in the corner, have a much more difficult extra two points than one driven over near the posts after an attritional succession of short drives from rucks? Take away the minute allowed to complete a conversion and you probably free up five minutes in an average game.
Penalty kicks at goal are also supposed to be completed within a minute of the intention to kick at goal being signalled. However, the George Ford goal-kick, from Kyle Sinckler's high tackle, took 1 min 45 sec from penalty award to completed kick. The referee allowed 45 seconds before he signalled the decision.
The minute time limit should be from when the referee specifies the position of the penalty. If the kicking side want to endlessly debate their options fine – but they will just cut down the time their kicker has to complete a shot at goal. Given the average number of kicks at goal, you would free up another two or three minutes, and that is being conservative.
Also, apart from the problem of too many resets, the time taken to form and complete scrums is unacceptable. One Quins five-yard scrum took 1½ minutes before it was eventually resolved. It was 45 seconds before the packs got into a position where the referee could call the engagement. There is no reason why both packs cannot be set for engagement within 25 seconds of the mark being specified.
Many lineouts had the same problem. To illustrate the point, take one Leicester attacking lineout. From the point the ball went into touch, it took 20 seconds for both lineouts to form and Leicester to throw the ball in. At other times it was well over a minute before the throwing side finished their huddled debate, got into position and made the throw.
How about for lineouts and scrums having an NFL-style delay of game call? Go over a specified time limit and the set-piece is moved 10 yards back or forward or the put-in/throw-in is reversed, depending on which side offend.
Finally, caterpillar box kicks. A ruck is over when the ball is clearly won, not when it is in the ideal position for the scrum-half to box-kick. With each player added to a defensive blocking line, you take another few seconds for the No 9 to roll-kick it into his optimum position. Referees should call "play it" as soon as it is won and count the five seconds out loud and then enforce the law.
Make these changes and I guarantee a haste, presently claimed to be impossible, will miraculously occur. With all these issues addressed we could probably remove at least 10 minutes from the boring time now being foisted on the paying public.
Why would any professional game, said to be in the entertainment industry, not do this?