The one thing rugby union could copy from league – 13 players

October 27, 2009


Rugby union seems to be eternally engaged in a forlorn struggle to make itself more entertaining without losing its soul.

For all the rule changes the game has undergone, many matches still turn into battles of attrition decided by penalties rather than slick hands and sidesteps.

Lots of the proposed or attempted changes seem to seek to take the sport in the direction of rugby league, where the contest for possession ends with the tackle. The abandoned ELVs, for example, effectively stopped mauling while they were in force by allowing defending teams to collapse in the hope that this would lead to more open play.

Modifications like this miss the point because, while rucks, mauls and scrums might not be much fun to watch, they are part of the physical challenge that make union so enjoyable to play.

But the one thing union could copy from league is the number of players on the park. With 15 it is too easy for teams to cover the field, especially when top-class defences are in action, which may be why the World Cup final is often a dull affair with few or no tries.

Dumping two positions, a winger and a flanker say, would create more space for runners and help make the sport more entertaining without undermining the characteristics that render it unique.

I don’t know if there would be less use of the boot, but having more gaps to aim for should make the kicking more intelligent than the ping-pong we frequently have now, where the ball is hoofed with little hope of creating a scoring opportunity to players at the other end who are under no pressure.

It’s an unorthodox idea, but that does not necessarily make it a bad one.

Former England centre Jeremy Guscott said it was a “ludicrous” when someone put it to him on the BBC’s website recently. But he didn’t say why, he just told the reader to “go and watch rugby league if you don’t like the 15-man game”. 

FIFA vice president Jack Warner suggested this month that it might be a good idea to reduce the number of players in soccer to 10 to stop defensive teams “parking the bus”. His boss, Sepp Blatter, laughed off the idea.

It might be eccentric, but a similar move in rugby union might just work.

PHOTOS: France hooker Raphael Ibanez tries to escape from Ireland winger Gordon D’Arcy (bottom) and flanker Simon Easterby during the Rugby World Cup Group D match at the Stade de France, Sept 21, 2007. REUTERS/Patrick Kovarik


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ELVs, the end of (sh)amateurism, a World Cup, more open rules, suggestions lower points values for penalties, 13 players….

Why not just admit that, back in 1895, it was the Northerners who got it right?

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

The first step is to reduce to 14 men. In the professional game despite standards being far higher, there is no room for the more skilful players to exploit. The game in the main is boring, injuries abound. Unfortunately knowing the history of the game there will be no significant changes and we have to put up with watching this dire fare.

Posted by Robert | Report as abusive

It isn’t just the number of players on the field; the points allocation ought to be changed too. It is far too easy to rack up a big points lead with the boot, and the last two winners of the Rugby Union World Cup (England and South Africa) won their matches with little flair and much playing for penalties and drop goals.

There’s a cultural inertia to any sport, and it is an attitude change that needs to be engineered over a period of years by making running and passing a profitable tactic.

Posted by Daniel | Report as abusive

In the early years of the 20th century, New Zealand teams routinely played with 7-man scrums: 2 in the front row, three in the second row, 2 in the back row. These scrums usually bested their foreign opponents and the IRB eventually changed the laws to require 8-man scrums.

Rugby could easily be reduced to 14-man teams and the safety of scrums would be improved. It would be worth trialling in a domestic competition.

Posted by Steve Rotherham | Report as abusive

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