How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Rugby and Love the Stellenbosch Experimental Laws

Mon, Oct 29, 2007, Posted by   print

2007 World Cup, Laws & Refereeing, Test Rugby

The best offense is a good defense.

by Yue-Houng Hu and Victor Drover

RefereeMuch has been made of the Stellenbosch Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) which last week were given preliminary approval by the IRB to be more widely circulated and analyzed for further approval on 1 May 2008.

The IRB Council last week approved the ‘experimental law variations’ (ELVs) be circulated to all unions and returned with comments by January/February. The council will then vote on 1 May whether or not to bring them into worldwide rugby for a year’s trial. South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have also been asked to trial them in the Super 14.

The ELVs remain controversial as they amount to a revolution in the way rugby is played. Aimed to render rugby faster, more exciting, and simpler for both fans and officials, it is clear that the IRB is attempting to create a more ‘viewer friendly’ sport. What is not apparent is the dirty little secret exposed by the proposed law changes:

rugby as we know it, may be dying.

We all know rugby to be a great sport. There’s a reason why we love it, why we play it, why we pore obsessively over details. North Americans who are drawn to the sport are often enamored with its physicality and perceived brutality. What they often don’t realize is that rugby, at its best, is a sport of incredible intelligence, creativity, beauty and grace. Not all of us in Canada and the USA realize this aspect of the game. Rather, many North Americans extol the virtues of ‘smash mouth’ rugby and of physical dominance. Not enough of us celebrate the moments of sublime inspiration, the moments of unthinkable beauty. To deny the cerebral portion of the game is to deny at least half of what is important about the game and to deny the great majority of why it can be such an incredible sport to watch.

Held every four years, the Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport, the most prestigious and sought after prize. On the world stage it is surpassed only by the Football World Cup and the Summer Olympics. Under the intense spotlight cast by such events, we’ve begun to see the strategies that are leading to victory. As we progress through the knockout rounds of the tournament, teams are becoming increasingly conservative. What we are left with in the championship match is England and South Africa, the two most cautious teams amongst the major rugby playing nations in the world.

Of the four semifinalists at this years 2007 Rugby World Cup, was there one team on either pitch playing ‘constructive’ rugby, the type of calculated and inspired rugby that leads to tries? There were perhaps one or two creative tries in either semifinal, although this is debatable. In any case, the overwhelming majority of the points were scored through penalties and intercept tries. Clearly, teams are not playing constructive rugby. They are not creating scoring opportunities or venturing to great lengths to score tries. Rather, they seem content to play a game of advantage, endlessly kicking to the other team in hopes of gaining favorable field position.

The strategy is simply dictating play in opposition territory and waiting (yes, waiting!) for a penalty. Should one not come, these elite teams are content to attempt hopelessly dull and surprisingly low-percentage drop goals. They are satisfied with pushing the score card over three points at a time and hoping for the occasional opportunistic or intercept try. The only variation is seen when a series of high bombs and up-and-unders are employed to prey on the mistakes of the back three defenders.

Importantly, this strategy is not an aberration of the 2007 championship. At the international level and in the professional leagues, we are seeing a dearth of flair and spontaneity in favor of this unproductive, uncreative and overly cautious play featuring high-percentage set-pieces and territorial kicking. The few teams who have qualified for the Semi Finals while playing constructive rugby (Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji) have been unceremoniously bounced.

Even the French, renowned (but deservedly so?) for their unpredictable, free-flowing game, abandoned their traditional style for the Semi Final in favor of what can only be described as ‘decidedly English’. French coach Benard Laporte chose a tactical kicking game with the huge boot of Damien Traille out of position at fullback and Lionel Beauxis at fly half. Of course, these decisions were at the expense of the awe-inspiring (although admittedly riskier) Clement Poitrenaud and Frederik Michalak. By using this strategy, Laporte all but admitted that the traditional French game with its intrinsic risks would render ultimate victory impossible. The real shame is that despite the change in tactics, France was still unable to defeat England at their own game.

This trend in overly cautious play is not based simply on opinion and conjecture. Fans and critics are urgently aware that England reached the final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup by scoring just one try in three of their matches against major opponents (South Africa, Australia, France). Historical data also supports the argument that the professional era has stifled an open and creative rugby style. In the knock-out stages of the World Cup prior to the professional era (circa 1995), the World Cup champions scored more points from tries compared to the runner-up (Figure 1). After the professional era, we see a sudden switch as team scoring more tries is handed a loss for their efforts.

How then are the modern World Cup champions scoring enough points to defeat an opponent who is scoring more tries? If one compares total points scored from penalties and tries during the knock-out stages of the first 5 rugby World Cup championships (raw data, PDF), the answer is clear. The professional era marks a shift in scoring trends which favors penalties (Figure 2). The data from the 2007 Rugby World Cup (not shown) do not follow this trend due to teams like Fiji and Argentina being heavily outmatched in the Semi Finals and Quarter Finals. However, it cannot be denied that in the 2007 Final, both England and South Africa presented vigorous and courageous defense but little in the way of attack with all 21 points scored from penalty kicks. Much to the dismay of the fans who were exhilarated by the pool stage matches, the majority of attacking sequences in the Final were spent kicking the ball away for positional advantage.

Figures 1 and 2. Rugby World Cup scoring patterns in the knock out stages.

It seems that the only way to win the World Cup and other professional rugby leagues is to shelve the creativity and spirit of the elite players. International and professional teams are better able and better resourced (both in manpower and funding) to analyze their opponents and to create impenetrable walls of defense. Could this wealth of resource be used in reverse to stimulate creative attack? Of course. But building a defensive system is always going to be easier and faster than cultivating creativity and decision making, the latter of which is perhaps the most difficult rugby skill to teach and to learn.

The implications of the ‘success’ of an overly cautious rugby style could well be catastrophic at the elite level of the sport. Success breeds imitation and replication. We may soon witness an influx of teams playing simply to not lose or concede points of any kind. France used this strategy to defeat New Zealand in the 2007 Quarter Finals by defending not less than two Kiwi attacking sequences with greater than 20 consecutive phases of possession.

The Stellenbosch Experimental Laws may not be the answer. They may not cure the epidemic of cautious, defensive rugby. However, they are at least a step towards righting the ship of rugby which has gone astray, tossed around by the waves of pressure exerted by the professional sport industry. The proposed changes strive to return rugby to its roots: a game simultaneously of great physicality and conflict as well as intelligence and supreme inspiration.

The hope is that the ELVs will force teams to go for the try and not the line-out/maul or penalty kick. If the players, fans and corporate sponsors appreciate this more than the current rugby union style, then the IRB will have achieved a holy trinity of support for the game and perhaps even spark a golden age for the sport.

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19 Responses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Rugby and Love the Stellenbosch Experimental Laws”

  1. Josh Houston says:

    As a spectator, I love the changes and agree 100% with you because I was bored to death watching the finals. Penalty kicks are boring, tries are exciting. Touchdowns are great, field goals suck. So as a SPECTATOR, I want to see these changes so the game becomes exciting to watch again.

    As a player (or at least I try to be one), I don’t like the changes for one reason. The IRB, and quite honestly the fans due to their outcry are telling me (I’m putting myself in the shoes of international stars) that I’m not exciting enough and winning the wya you want me to win. By modifying the laws, we’re dictating how a team can win. The ultimate goal is for them to win no matter how boring it may be. Telling them their not winning excitedly enough is a bit pompous, arrogant and pretentious.

    I’m really not that against them as a player because I play a low level of rugby (is their any other kind in the U.S.?). But to the players who play for pay, I can see this as a little insulting. I’m simply trying to play devil’s advocate and look at it from the persepctive of England, South Africa, France, etc. Who knows, maybe they’ll embrace the change.

    I have a bit of a problem with where the changes are coming from and why. And as far as I know, there were no players or teams that complained about the way a team won. I understand that a sport only survives due to sponsorship, tv contracts and exposure. It’s just a shame when these things actually influence how the game will be played in the future.

    BTW, the title of the article is awesome, very creative!

  2. Vic says:

    Ya, Yue-Houng nailed the title.

    I was also imagining what it must be like for the players in the world cup or in a professional league. Their coaches and captains telling them to wait for a sure thing, to not extend beyond their skill, to not take risks. Sounds like crap to me. :)

    RE ‘arrogance’, the ELVs are coming from within the IRB, and I believe the IRB requested the O’Brien and his committee analyze the game and look for improvements. I’m not sure the players should feel slighted that the International body which controls the sport is trying out some changes. In addition, if refereeing gets better, especially at the non-elite levels, players around the world will be very happy I think.

  3. Josh Houston says:

    How about we let olympic athletes extend beyond their skill and encourage Tiger Woods to do the same. Rugby is a team sport where a collective effort is required to win. If that means a few players “lowering” their game to win, then isn’t that better? Michalak extends his play quite often and winds up screwing his team from his “flair” and “riskiness” I’m sure coaches and captains tell their players to go out and win, to do whatever it takes. Not to put on a show and play like the Harlem Globetrotters.

    It’s not that the IRB is seeking out changes, it’s WHY they’re seeking out changes. I’d just be curious to get a players view on the changes. Could you get on that for me o’ wise one?

    No matter how good refereeing gets, people will always think they suck. But I don’t see how these changes would make refereeing better. What it will do is phase out the old farts that still hang around refereeing when they can’t keep up with the breakdown and run down breakaway tries. So if you mean it will get better by eliminating the geezers who are too old call a game, then yes, it will get better. (of course I’m talking about the sorry referee’s that we’ve seen over the years at our levels)

  4. Alan says:

    It is hoped that it will make referees better by simplifying things for them. They no longer have to determine the owner of the hand playing the ball in the ruck (or which one was first). They don’t have to worry if the maul was brought down deliberately or if it was just a matter of gravity. They don’t have to count men in the lineout.

    I’ve got a lot of problems with these changes, but I’ll leave that for another time. But there’s the reason why it is expected that this could improve refereeing.

  5. Josh Houston says:

    OK, that makes sense.

    But now they also have to watch for 5M back from the backfoot of the scrum.

  6. Vic says:

    As in the lineout, that’s pretty easy to see, especially for the ‘assistant referee’ as touch judges are proposed to get a promotion :)

  7. Josh Houston says:

    Yeah because we have such quality touch judges in the U.S. in rugby league.

  8. Josh Houston says:

    That’s a great article. Although I didn’t like the analogies to cricket, tennis and golf. That was pretty lame.

    He makes a very good point though that rather than change the rules, teams and players should work on changing their games to penetrate tougher defenses.

    I personally find try line stands very exciting when a team prevents another from scoring. I do agree with him also that rugby could turn into the NBA if they’re just trying to promote more scoring.

    One aspect of the rule changes he does not address is the fect the the SRV’s are also aimed at the ball being in play more. As you pointed out in your first article on the SRV’s Vic, the ball is in play 39 minutes as oppossed to 22 minutes with the SRV’s in effect. This is something I would like to see happen.

  9. Josh Houston says:

    Here’s a coaches perspective on the law changes:


  10. Nico Zandberg says:

    As a student at Stellenbosch university I have been playing under these new laws for some while now. Almost 3 years. And altough there is a lot of objection by the rest of the world at this stage I can promise you all that rugby would remain rugby and that the new laws does not have such a big affect as one might think. Apart from making the game better I can’t see anything else it does. I’m sure you are all gonna love.

  11. Yue-Houng says:

    the xdforum article is interesting enough. however, the author treats the resurgence of english and french vision and attack as an inevitability. as long as this kind of rugby is successful, i don’t see any reason why teams would get more expansive. his/her argument about the super14s only serves to prove this point. eventually, teams figured out that it was more beneficial to kick away pressure and set up strong defenses than to give free reign to the backs to attack.

    and it also comes back to one of the points in vic and my article. it’s always going to be easier to set up a strong defense than it is to “change the attitude” to attack or to cultivate the talent to break the defenses.

    i don’t think the elv’s purpose is to tell teams that they MUST play open rugby. it’s just a means of encouraging it. the idea is not to do away with the traditional forwards game of the english altogether, but to perhaps tell other teams that perhaps, they might be better served with their own strategy. a strategy that may better suit their personnel. remember, forward dominance can still be attained by opting for scrums at the free kick.

    this isn’t to say that i 100% agree with all of the laws. i’m still skeptical on how hands in the ruck might work out. i’m worried it might relegate rucks into huge armwrestling matches at the breakdown. also, i think bringing down the maul is dangerous, 3 years of sparse statistics be damned. the new truck and trailer law should also be looked at very very carefully since it opens a huge bag of questions and our line between blocking becomes ever thinner. but hey, at least their hearts are in the right place.

    on a somewhat similar note: i think the crackdown on the boots on players is crap and perhaps one reason why the knockout rounds were so dull to watch. you see players throughout the tournament lying all over the ball. when they get the boots, the booter gets carded. this is ridiculous. i say, if the boots are not on the head or the genitalia, it’s fair game. when you allow defenses to lay all over the ball without any repercussion, they will do it. this of course slows and kills the quality of the ball, and expansive rugby becomes even more difficult to implement.

    also, josh. SRVs? stellenbosch rule variations? texas flood?

  12. Josh Houston says:

    “It’s floodin’ down in texas……”Hahaha Stevie Ray Vaughn, very funny. Stop picking on me, with the number of concussions I’ve sustained over the years, I’m lucky I can still read and write at all.

  13. Vic says:

    This article really sums up the effect of tactics and how they relate to the game play:

    Why the All Blacks really lost

  14. Chad Herth says:

    There comes a time when changing a game just to please the fans becomes dumb. I’ve seen so many changes in the last thirty years that the game I came to love so much no longer exists. Its about time we as players
    and fans stop trying to fix something that isn’t broken.

  15. Clyde Mix says:

    Here is the things I take from the new laws and the AMERICAN game…

    1)Different sized players(chunky Ollie Le Roux type props, tall slower locks) are done for with the new laws.
    You will have to be of a certain fitness to move around the park….bigger guys-unless supremely fit- are through.

    2)Again the upped fitness requirements…with the quick taps instead of penalty kicks i.e. rest breaks, it will be the most fit team wins period. For my team, I will look to recruit cross country runners…we will win even if we have to come back from 30 down in the last 15 minutes.

    I think the new laws will benefit the watching of the game on tv…but ruin the amateur sport for players.

    My biggest concern is the quick tap free kicks…it will make scoring towards the end of the game a mess.

  16. tmcnicol says:

    This isn’t a comment but plea for help. Can I get a copy of the Paddy O’Brien videos on ELV’s to play at a site with no internet capabilities?

  17. Vic says:

    The copy I originally saw was copyrighted. I recommend contacting your local union, referee society or the irb.

    Sorry i couldn’t be of more help. Where r u based?

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