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Rugby union's obsession with defence must be tackled if game is to thrive

Paul Rees
·5-min read

Given the time of year, rugby union needs to go shopping for charismas. Amazon Prime dipped into the petty clash to find the £20m to secure the television rights for the Autumn Nations Cup, but it is difficult to argue it has had value for money.

The game in Europe is in one of its sclerotic periods on the field and mired in administrative inertia off it. Amazon has the final it would have hoped for on Sunday with England and France offering the most potential new subscribers, but Les Bleus are having to field a reserve team. That’s because the Top 14 clubs and the French Rugby Federation agreed that no player would appear in more than three matches this autumn, which started with a warm-up to the Six Nations finale. Does that merit a rebate?

The Six Nations is hoping for a bidding war with the current television contract in its final year, but it does not feel it has to sell a competition that, in normal times, attracts capacity crowds and generates significant publicity. If it did, much of what has been seen in the past month would be declared unacceptable. If Amazon were to reclassify it as drama rather than sport, it would end up in the horror genre rather than action and adventure.

Related: Eddie Jones believes fewer breaks in play would unleash attacking rugby

It is not just the international game that is in need of a stimulus. On the eve of in Llanelli, Newcastle and Sale churned out at Kingston Park. It was another match that was hard-fought and tense, but otherwise had nothing to commend it.

The Wales centre Nick Tompkins blamed the new emphasis at the breakdown, where attacking teams are no longer able to recycle the ball at will as referees seek a greater contest for possession, for the safety-first tactics. Which makes you wonder why his head coach, Wayne Pivac, is still trying to pursue an attacking strategy if the moment is inopportune.

Wales, like Ireland, laboured to victory over Georgia last month, struggling to take the game to limited opponents, a departure from what they are used toEngland, though, stuck to their routine. That it did not come naturally to Wales was perhaps not surprising given how players make their way into the professional game.

One parent said last week that his son, who was in a club’s academy, was considering giving up rugby because training was a slog of strength and conditioning, with far more time spent in the gym than on the training field: at an age when rugby should be fun, little attention was paid to skills. And it shows because by the time an international coach gets hold of a player, it is too late.

England’s Sam Underhill, the man of the match at Parc y Scarlets last Saturday, epitomises the modern international player: hard, uncompromising and relentlessly physical. He is 24, but for how long will his body put up with the battering it receives? The recent books by Dylan Hartley and Sam Warburton graphically highlight the toll taken on players, who feel late middle-aged by the time they are 30.

Newcastle and Sale in action last Friday.
Newcastle and Sale in action last Friday. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Coaches blame a lack of space on the field caused by players fanning out, but should they not take responsibility for union resembling league without the sixth-tackle law? Line breaks are frowned on because they put the ball carrier in danger of being isolated at a time when attacking teams have to repel raiders after a tackle, and so they reach for the skies. It is a failure of coaching at all levels.

Where is the subterfuge? American football is even more gruelling and prescriptive than union, but it has its moments. Last Sunday, the Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry scattered defenders at Indianapolis Colts on his way to three touchdowns. At the end of the second quarter, the Titans had a play close to the line. Henry prepared to receive the ball, the defence followed him and the quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, walked over an unguarded line.

Related: Rugby union's charms buried under defensive landslide in Autumn Nations Cup | Robert Kitson

David Moffett, the former chief executive of the New Zealand and Wales unions, in conjunction with the former Argentina and Australia prop Enrique Rodríguez, last August established a new form of the game, Rugby Rules, in frustration of what union had turned into since turning professional in 1995.

“The evolution of rugby in the last 25 years has made it almost unrecognisable, with an unhealthy obsession with defence and teams playing for penalties,” he said. “There are virtually no contests for possession and the public have become bored with the predictability of the game. The yearly changes in law interpretations, often to accommodate the latest whims of a few vocal coaches, have made rugby dangerous and overly complicated.”

Rugby Rules is a game for 13 (or 14) players, six forwards and seven (or eight) backs, played in three periods of 20 minutes. A try is worth six points, a penalty two and a drop goal and conversion earn one. There is a maximum of one reset per scrum, no lifting in the lineout and no clearing out at the breakdown or players going off their feet. Its aim is to make rugby dynamic, preoccupied with neither defence nor attack, and simpler for spectators and viewers, with six regulations and 10 rules.

World Rugby’s effort to establish a global season, which would stop players being caught between club and country, is still alive. Deloitte are conducting a financial evaluation to see whether leagues and unions would be better off by playing club tournaments to a conclusion and then combining the summer and autumn Test windows.

Something seismic needs to happen, like Amazon telling the European unions their product is over-priced or spectators baulking at investing a three-figure sum to get a cricked neck. The next Six Nations television contract will be on pay TV, but will enough pay to watch it? Over to CVC.

• This is an extract from our weekly rugby union email, the Breakdown. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.