It seems that after every World Cup, the losers all band together and call for rule changes. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is a concept alien in rugby circles.
Over the last decade the game of rugby has undergone more changes than Michael Jackson’s face. While the 2003 Rugby World Cup was deemed an unbridled success — with a huge worldwide audience, sold-out stadiums and well-contested rugby — it has unearthed questions as to what the future holds for the game.
After a painfully boring 1999 World Cup, the powers that be made sweeping rule changes in an attempt to open up a game that had become dominated by defenses and the boot of the kickers. Complicated new rules made for a swifter passage of the ball from the breakdown and more restrictive defensive alignments. The idea being to encourage running rugby by allowing the backline the opportunity to receive the ball earlier and make faster breaks.
The move worked for the first few years at least, as teams produced a feast of tries and high-scoring matches. Inevitably, however, the professional and highly competitive nature of the game saw the advent of new techniques in slowing the ball down and new defensive strategies.
The result: a glaring lack of tries at the highest level. It would be unfair to say that the game has regressed to the level of 1999 — the pace of the game and skills have improved but the top teams, have just canceled each other out.
Adjustments are needed, specifically in the allocation of points. The reward for kicking penalties and dropgoals is too high.
At this, I anticipate English fans to be choking on their champagne with outrage having recently witnessed their side triumph in a drama-filled final.
I am not suggesting that England did not deserve its victory. The theory that England is a one-man team driven by the boot of Jonny Wilkinson is flawed, as England has consistently proven to be at the top of the game in every aspect of play.
Every champion team in any given sport usually has an individual star to distinguish it from its peers. Without Diego Maradona, Argentina would not likely have won the 1986 soccer World Cup. Likewise Ronaldo spearheaded Brazil’s quest for glory in the 2002 version of the same event.
But England only managed to score two tries from the quarterfinals onward and a total of only five tries were scored in both semifinals and the final combined.
Hardly inspiring stuff, particularly in light of the fact that seven tries were scored in the 1999 semifinal between France and New Zealand alone.
There certainly is a skill in dominating possession and territory and thereby forcing under-pressure opponents into conceding penalties, and of course, converting those penalties into points. But the game should be more focused on scoring tries.
Games dominated by the boot also open themselves to results decided by the whim of the referee and his whistle.
Two points for penalties and one point for drop-goals?
This suggestion was mooted at Australia’s post World Cup final press conference. Australian coach Eddie Jones, who had just seen his side buried by three Wilkinson drop-goals, insinuated that drop-goals should be worth only one point, tongue firmly in cheek. Jones did seriously go on to say that the question of the value of drop-goals in a game was worthy of discussion. He also added that he believed the current allocation of three points for a penalty was fair as it sufficiently inhibits players from committing momentum-killing offenses in certain areas of the field. He emphasized that discipline had become an ever-increasing facet of the game.
Surely creativity, vision and skill should be aspects of the game that should take precedence over discipline? For example — assuming a top-tier team has the basic skills to secure at least a 30 percent share of possession — a winning recipe in the modern game could be to have a side lacking in imagination, but superbly organized defensively, extremely disciplined and with a specialized flyhalf (in the mould of an NFL kicker) who can do nothing apart from tackle and kick drop-goals.
The coach of the international team of the year that played the most exciting brand of rugby seen in years, has been sacked, primarily for refusing to acknowledge the importance of having a reliable goalkicker in his team. The All Blacks missed two kickable penalties at a crucial stage of their semifinal defeat at the hands of Australia, putting themselves under intense pressure to penetrate a seemingly impenetrable defense.
French flyhalf Frederic Michalak missed five kickable penalties within the space of 40-odd minutes in his team’s semifinal defeat to England.
Points on the board create pressure and build confidence and again, while England dominated that game, one can only speculate what the result may have been had Michalak had his kicking boots on.
The number of penalties that allow a kick at goal should also be reduced. More infringements should be penalized by allowing the present use of a penalty but without the option of kicking for points.
Alternatively the goalposts could be made alot narrower to really make a team think twice about kicking for poles.
Under the current system, two minor infringements can cost a team six points, cancelling out a brilliant, unconverted try. Tries should be worth six points and conversions one, with the option of a two-or three-point conversion attempt (also like in NFL) from the position of a five-meter scrum.
Rugby union officials will be reluctant to enforce any rule changes that make it resemble more closely its cousin and rival, rugby league, but it has to be speculated that future changes to the game are inevitable.
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