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World Rugby open to 20-minute red card trial to enhance global appeal

World Rugby open to 20-minute red card trial to enhance global appeal
World Rugby is shaking things up with a new plan to make rugby more entertaining and attract a wider audience, including trials of changes like 20-minute red cards. (Photo: Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

World Rugby could reduce replacements and adopt strict low tackle restrictions at elite level as part of a shake-up for the sport in an attempt to attract new fans.

In response to rugby’s poor image with laws and their applications, which has led to fan disgruntlement, World Rugby has launched a new plan to “enhance the global appeal” of the sport.

Worryingly — or maybe not, depending on your perspective — World Rugby’s goal is “reimagining rugby’s entertainment factor as part of a wider mission to grow audience share over the next decade”.

World Rugby wants more people watching, and therefore paying, for rugby. World Rugby wants it to be more entertaining. And to achieve this growth (by exactly how much is not clear) they plan to make it less boring and controversial.

These proposals have their genesis in World Rugby’s “Shape of the Game” forum which was held in February.

Several “specialist working groups” will be established to monitor the trials of some of these proposed changes, such as tackle height, which is being tested in South Africa and elsewhere.

“With decisions being made through the lens of player and fan experience as rugby seeks to grow relevance and accessibility among a broader, younger audience, evolution is focused on enhancing ball in flow, reducing stoppages and increasing welfare outcomes,” a World Rugby statement said.

Like all sports, rugby can be boring at times. But is it as bad as it’s made out, especially at the top end?

Last year’s Rugby World Cup (RWC) in France produced some of the greatest games ever played and featured teams playing a range of different styles. It was a superb advertisement for the sport.

RWC 2023 had the full range of skill, passion, brute strength, guile and courage. It was a snapshot of the best of the sport, for the most part.

But rugby does have issues to address. Endless reset scrums are tedious and unnecessary interventions by the television match official (TMO) are also slowing the game down.

Several interventions discussed at the recent forum will be trialled over the coming months.

red card

The proposed changes aim to make rugby less boring and controversial, focusing on enhancing ball flow and reducing stoppages. (Photo: Paul Harding/Getty Images)

20-minute red card trial

World Rugby is also considering a global trial for 20-minute red cards, which Sanzaar, consisting of New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Australia, supports.

It’s not, however, doing away with trials to assess whether lowering tackle heights will make the game safer. While some will oppose the 20-minute red card, it’s not an either/or situation.

The current laws around tackle heights will still apply, but the sanction might not be as severe, at least during the game. Post-match disciplinary hearings and suspensions are set to continue.

“Saru supports that (20-minute red card),” Saru CEO, Rian Oberholzer said at the SA Player of the Year awards last week.

“A red card spoils the match. As a spectacle — when you have 14 play against 15… there is a 3% chance of the 14 winning. I don’t think that is good for the game or the spectators.”

While it’s unclear where Oberholzer got the 3% number from, stats published in The Times, taken from British sports analytics company Opta, show a vastly different picture.

“According to Opta, there have been 44 red cards in Test matches involving Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams since 2010,” The Times reported.

“The team reduced to 14 men have won 22, drawn three and lost 19 of those games.”

While those stats are irrefutable in terms of the results, there is a good argument to be had that games become less of a spectacle when marred by red cards. Sometimes the team with 15 men plays with more caution.

Last year’s RWC 2023 final between the Springboks and the All Blacks was impacted by a red card for New Zealand captain Sam Cane. The Boks dominated the opening half-hour while Cane was on the field. After his red card, the Boks appeared to become more tentative.

The above Test results, with more than 50% of teams reduced to 14 men, winning, suggest there is some merit to that argument.

Another part of the red-card trial will be an attempt to streamline the disciplinary process for frustrated fans.

“Streamlining, increasing simplicity, consistency and fan understanding” is the objective, World Rugby stated.

Immediate law changes

World Rugby has broken down its objectives into five phases, with the first being “immediate” changes to existing laws.

These are:

  • Players will be expected to use the ball more quickly when the ball has been secured at a ruck/breakdown. Referees will be asked to call “use it” earlier, which will begin the five-second count to play the ball away.
  • Hookers will be expected to maintain a full brake foot to aid scrum stability and safety during the engagement sequence. Any adjustment must maintain the act of the brake.
  • Strict reinforcement of the 2022 law trial relating to water carriers entering the field of play.

Phase two is “law amendment recommendations for global adoption”.

  • Recommendation to make adjustments to Law 10 in relation to players being put onside when there are kicks in open play, as per the current Super Rugby Pacific trial which aims to reduce kick tennis.
  • Removal of the scrum option from a free-kick at a scrum, reducing dead time.
  • Outlawing the practice of the “croc roll”, reinforcing player welfare focus.

Other, possible changes in the third phase, include:

  • A shot clock for scrums and lineouts.
  • Ability to mark the ball inside the 22m from a restart.
  • The ball must be played after the maul has been stopped once, not twice.
  • Further protection of scrumhalves at the base of rucks and scrums.
  • Play on if a lineout is not straight, but the throw is uncontested.

The fourth phase will see the specialist working group established to further explore aspects identified by the Shape of the Game forum. Recommendations will then be made to the World Rugby Council.  

The fifth and final phase is to “examine the impact of specific aspects of the game in new rugby labs”.

New rugby labs will enable World Rugby to test out new aspects of law in a controlled environment evaluated by data and player feedback. They will be utilised to examine the impact of aspects of the game that either have an impact on speed or safety. These are likely to include the scrum engagement sequence and the tackle/ruck area.

Bill Beaumont

World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

“Change is in rugby’s DNA. Two hundred years ago we were born from a desire to change, and we are harnessing that same spirit to excite the next generation of fans and players,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said.

“The moves that we are making are grounded in our commitment to increasing relevance on a global basis and are born from a desire to change for the better.

“That means being bold, embracing change by dialling up the entertainment value, making our stars more accessible and simplifying terminology and language used to explain rugby to those who are yet to fall in love with it.

“We have moved quickly. It has taken a special unity and commitment from across the sport to be able to present a package of enhancements to the Council in May. I look forward to the discussions.” DM

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  • Steve Davidson says:

    Anything to do with the NZRU these days is suspect, as they – and particularly the Aussies – are battling apparently against the boring ‘Five tackles, kick’ monotony of rugby league, and they are the ones proposing this daft twenty minute red rule. The AB supporters are still whinging about the serial-perpetrator Cane’s well-earned red card in the RWC final, rather than suggesting – as the Boks have done incredibly well – he, and the rest of the AB players, learn how to tackle properly! Maybe the tackle height trials will prove the benefits, but I expect the NZRU – like they did with the 2016 breakdown and tackle trials – will try to squash any changes if they don’t suit their one-dimensional league type of play.

  • John Patson says:

    What is the point when Southern Hemisphere refs allow deliberate knock ons and illegal charge downs, and refuse to use video replays on key decisions? In the so-called World Cup…

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