Innovate or die? Rugby’s continued quest to stay relevant
The pressure on English rugby, and the game in general, to adapt and ensure the long-term success of the sport is evident in two innovations that are set to debut next season.
Targeted at opposite ends of the game, both are devised to increase engagement and participation – and both require coaches to take an active role in their implementation.
The first change is set to be adopted by the Rugby Football Union in a bid to reduce the amount of grassroots games that are cancelled due to a lack of players.
The Game On initiative will give adult teams, competing outside of RFU Leagues and Cups, the freedom to tweak the Laws of the game so that more games can be completed.
Matches will be allowed to be played as long as each team has a minimum of 10 players and a result will stand as long as at least 40 minutes has been played – rather than the normal 80.
In addition, rolling substitutions will be allowed and the guiding principles allow for both scrums and lineouts to be uncontested if there are not enough specialised players.
Any changes must clearly be agreed ahead of kick off by both sides and officials but the success of the idea relies on coaches getting to work well before that point.
They must continue efforts to develop players able to adapt to positional switches so they can fulfil a different role should the need arise.
They must also nurture problem-solving skills so their players are able to meet the demands of a different match scenario that asks questions of things like their tactics or defensive structure.
There may well be concern at the need to address the issue with it being less than four years since England hosted the Rugby World Cup, an honour that it was hoped would pave the way for a sustained period of growth and participation.
This also comes at a time when the adult population is apparently being more active, according to a recent Sport England survey.
A crumb of comfort offered by that same survey is that rugby union is not haemorrhaging playing numbers in England but a more valuable indicator from the survey may be that ‘enjoyment’ is the biggest motivator for the active.
That may be music to the ears of those behind the other initiative hoping to inject fresh life into the game at all levels.
Billed as ‘rugby in its simplest form’, it will debut indoors on a specially-constructed artificial pitch at The O2 arena in London in October – a sign that promoters are convinced they are onto a winner.
With international sides featuring fewer players, a smaller pitch and different rules, organisers promise, ‘a game that’s faster, more intense with non-stop action’.
Each game will last just 10 minutes with no half-time but with rolling substitutes. There will be no posts, no conversions, no lineouts and a quick throw will be used for each re-start.
Ben Ryan, the man who steered Fiji to Olympic gold glory, is one of the key figures behind RugbyX and is convinced it will fundamentally change the sport.
“RugbyX takes a game we all love and makes it faster, simpler, more accessible,” he said, “I honestly believe it’ll change the way we enjoy rugby forever.”
World Rugby has given its blessing to the tournament and England, Ireland, USA, France and Argentina have so far signed up for the event that will feature both a men’s and women’s competition.
Ryan is looking beyond any potential commercial success and believes it could have just as significant impact at the grassroots level of the game, and in particular state schools, where he believes the sport is suffering.
“Extra-curricular sport is dying in state schools, especially in the inner cities,” he added.
“It is very hard – even if you are a mad keen rugby teacher working in an inner-city school – to start up rugby at the moment. XVs is obviously technically difficult as a start-up, and 7s is just aerobically and anaerobically shattering.”
“This gives a short-sided and simple version, where teachers with no background in rugby, in limited resources in limited space, can get the game going.”
It is an intriguing variation of the game that you envisage would provide the ‘enjoyment’ indicated as a key driver in participation and you can bet the Rugby Football Union will be keen observers.
As with the Game On initiative, RugbyX asks more of coaches but in truth we shouldn’t wait to be tested by new formats or rules.
Instead we should seek out those challenges on a regular basis to ask questions of ourselves and our players which in turn will no doubt fuel our collective development.