Rugby union, while steeped in tradition, is grappling with issues that demand innovative solutions.
Declining viewer interest, difficulty in attracting a diverse fanbase, and the pressing need for a contemporary approach are all on the table, not just here in the heartland of rugby but around the world. The sport is dying a slow death.
Enter World Series Rugby (WSR), an idea stolen from Australian Kerry Packer but with a bit of a more modern twist. It was a commercial professional cricket competition that ran in the late 1970s and it drastically changed the nature of the game.
Drawing inspiration from the success of T20 cricket — which has turned India into the superpower of cricket — could be the much-needed catalyst to address the challenges facing rugby by embracing the fast-paced and dynamic elements of the short-form cricket game.
WSR represents a distinctive departure from the established format of rugby sevens. While both share the goal of promoting a faster and more dynamic version of the game, WSR draws inspiration from the revolutionary success of T20 cricket and the transformative impact it had on the cricketing world.
The series should aim to attract top players from New Zealand and around the world, offering competitive salaries and incentives, such as a substantial prize pool to attract top talent and reinforce its significance —similar to the Indian Premier League. Players known for their entertaining style of play should be targeted as marquee signings.
Elements the new format could implement:
- Shorter games, with halves reduced to a set time limit, could help ensure fast-paced and action-packed matches.
- Introduce power plays where scoring is multiplied for a designated period, encouraging teams to strategically capitalise on these phases to maximise their points.
- A strategic interchange to enable teams to bring on fresh players with specific skills suited to the evolving dynamics of the match. Allow teams to adapt their player composition mid-game, enabling them to optimise their line-up based on the match situation and the strengths of their opponents.
- Bonus points for exciting plays, such as long-range tries, innovative set-piece moves, or spectacular individual efforts that incentivise teams to showcase creativity and flair.
- Implement a shot clock for scrums, lineouts, and conversions to ensure a more dynamic and fluid game, reducing downtime and keeping the tempo high.
- Explore alternative scoring systems (the ladder), such as introducing bonus points for reaching specific try-scoring milestones or rewarding teams for successful defensive efforts.
- Incorporate fan-driven challenges where viewers can vote for specific in-game scenarios, influencing aspects like substitutions, tactical decisions, or power play timings
- Matches should be strategically scheduled to avoid clashes with major international rugby events, ensuring participation from top players.
- Introduce innovations such as player mic-ing, in-game interviews, and fan interactions to enhance the entertainment value.
Solutions would need to be found around the overuse of the TMO in reviewing plays, and the issue of player safety and sending people off for malicious plays, accidental or not, would need a careful rethink.
But the adaptation of WSR would be more than a mere change in format; it’s a potential game-changer that would make rugby more accessible and entertaining for a border audience, securing lucrative broadcasting deals and sponsorships that inject much-needed funds into the sport. The financial boost could prove instrumental in nurturing grassroots talent, improving infrastructure, and sustaining the rugby ecosystem at all levels.
Moreover, the series offers an opportunity to showcase New Zealand’s rugby prowess on a grand international stage.
Unlike rugby sevens, which focuses on reducing the number of players on the field to create open spaces and fast-paced action, WSR introduces strategic innovations such as power plays, a shot clock, and fan-driven challenges to enhance excitement. Moreover, the proposed series aims to attract top players globally, offering competitive salaries and incentives, and targeting those renowned for their entertaining style of play as marquee signings.
WSR’s emphasis on adapting to the evolving dynamics of the match through strategic interchanges and mid-game player composition adjustments sets it apart from the fixed nature of rugby sevens. In essence, WSR aspires to be more than just a modified version; it envisions a complete reimagining of rugby, making it not only more accessible and entertaining but a potential game-changer for the sport’s future.
However, proposing such a groundbreaking series comes with its own set of challenges. Finding backers willing to invest in the vision of WSR is a critical hurdle. It requires the support of stakeholders — be it visionary sponsors, broadcasters, or rugby enthusiasts with the means to turn this ambitious proposal into reality.
In the spirit of progress and Kiwi ingenuity, it’s time to open the floor to discussions. Much like cricket enthusiasts embraced change — some reluctantly — and witnessed the rewards, rugby enthusiasts in New Zealand have the opportunity to champion a similar cause. The proposal is a call to action, urging fans, players, and administrators to explore the potential of WSR or other innovative changes for the benefit of rugby worldwide.
The proposal for WSR is not just a suggestion; it’s an opportunity to harness the magic that transformed cricket and channel it into a renaissance for New Zealand rugby.
Luke Kirkness is an online sports editor for the NZ Herald. He previously covered consumer affairs for the Herald and was an assistant news director in the Bay of Plenty. He won Student Journalist of the Year in 2019.