How to solve some of rugby’s problems — a 12-point blueprint

Simple solutions to minor issues would make the game less turgid for everyone

Scrum farce: Referee Nika Amashukeli stops an Italian scrum after they went down to 13 players during Sunday's match against Ireland. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Referee Nika Amashukeli stops an Italian scrum after they went down to 13 players during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

thumbnail: Scrum farce: Referee Nika Amashukeli stops an Italian scrum after they went down to 13 players during Sunday's match against Ireland. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
thumbnail: Referee Nika Amashukeli stops an Italian scrum after they went down to 13 players during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Charles RichardsonTelegraph Media Group Limited

Rugby is not in crisis. There are far too many entertaining matches – such as the one served up between France and Ireland two weeks ago – taking place every weekend for such hyperbole.

Equally, however, for a sport with such future ambitions, there are too many matches taking place where things are not quite right.

Recent comments bemoaning the congestion of the modern game struck a chord with many fans. Luckily, there might be some quick fixes.

Of course, some issues require more care. But rugby has many problems, the majority of which would be far easier and swifter to solve than the clandestine peculiarities of the scrum. Who knows, if all the other ills were fixed, maybe a few scrum resets would be far more tolerable?

So, here is a 12-point blueprint to make rugby less turgid; solutions of minor problems to improve both spectacle and sport.

1. Introduce a one-minute water break in each half

This would kill two birds with one stone. It would prevent the swarm of water-carriers from patrolling the touchlines and conveying messages from the coaching teams and it would also prevent them from invading the pitch at every break in play to slow down the action.

Players do not need water at every break in play. Kickers do not need water every time they kick at goal. Introduce an official water break of one minute in each half and then get on with the game.

2. Publicise the clock for kicks at goal

According to World Rugby’s own laws, a conversion must be taken “within 90 seconds (playing time) of the time a try is awarded, even if the ball rolls over and has to be placed again” and a penalty “within 60 seconds (playing time) from the time the team indicated their intention to [kick at goal]”.

While conversions are sometimes expedited and taken within the allotted 90-second window, can anyone remember the last time in a professional match that a kicker struck the ball off the tee within 60 seconds of the referee pointing to the posts?

In a bid to reduce the length of stoppages, a few seasons ago the French Top 14 and Pro D2 came up with a very simple solution to ensure that these time allocations were followed: at the moment a try is scored or posts pointed to, a visible clock pops up on the big screens in the stadium and on the television coverage at home and it begins to tick. If the 90 or 60 seconds lapse it would be evident and the referee could apply the correct sanction (scrum to the opposition for a penalty; no conversion for a try).

Why have all leagues and tournaments – many of which have watchmakers as time-keeping partners – not taken this elementary step?

3. Be more lenient with quick-tap penalties

How many times in a match do we see scrum-halves taking a penalty quickly and then being called back for not being exactly on the undefined, invisible – and, let’s face it, made up – “mark”? Too many times.

Contrast the above with the number of occasions that a hooker throws the ball into the line-out with his feet in the field of play – which is illegal and never reprimanded – or the frequency with which kickers restart in front of the halfway line or move the ball off the mark when goal-kicking off the tee – ditto – or the quantity of forward passes in the backfield to which a blind eye is turned; it soon becomes clear that the quick-tap crusade is simply pedantry for pedantry’s sake.

As long as the scrum-half is not in front of the mark, let them play.

4. Be stricter with the five-second ruck ‘use it’ call

Once again, citing World Rugby’s own laws: “When the ball has been clearly won by a team at the ruck, and is available to be played, the referee calls ‘use it’, after which the ball must be played away within five seconds.”

First and foremost, this rarely happens, simply because referees have so much to examine, assess and process at rucks.

Secondly, it does not go far enough. Referees should not have to shout “use it” and teams should not need five seconds from that call to play the ball.

The utopia would be to abolish the call and adjust the law so that every team has five seconds to play the ball once it is available (the availability of the ball, with the speed and [usual] cleanliness of the breakdown in modern rugby, is neither nebulous nor subjective – it is blindingly obvious, and players do not need to be told when the referee deems the ball as “available”).

If utopia is unachievable, however, then referees should be calling “use it” quicker and more frequently.

Many rucks take place in the modern game where the ball is available and the attacking team delay playing it – for whatever reason – and yet the referee says nothing. It is not just a law for box-kicks.

5. Be stricter with the blocking of quick throw-ins

If a player blocks the path for an opponent taking a quick throw-in and the blocker is not five metres from the touchline, then penalise them. Hell, yellow card them if you wish – we have seen sin-bins for less!

6. Ban pre-lineout conferences

They are too long, sap too much time and energy and are, arguably, futile – a fact proven by the pre-lineout huddle’s sudden disappearance when a team is chasing the win and their re-emergence when they are in front. Lineout calls in this day and age should be sophisticated enough that calling a Parish Council meeting is not necessary. Once huddles are banned, if lineouts still take too long, then a lineout time-limit would not be a bad idea, either.

7. Reduce the length of a penalty advantage

Scrum advantages are often called over with a dodgy pass or scuffed kick, yet with penalties it often seems as if a team could go from one end of the pitch to the other, score a try, convert it and then still maintain a penalty advantage when the restart is kicked to them.

Facetious the aforementioned may be, but referees being quicker to call “advantage over” would see fewer stoppages and more ball in play.

And, on this theme, if a team is attacking with a penalty advantage and gets the ball over the try-line but does not score, that should be, by default, advantage over. If not, then the subtext of the advantage law in these situations is that, unless the team score a try, there is no advantage.

If a team gets as close as possible to scoring without actually doing so, then that is on them. There should be no safety blanket in that scenario.

8. Reduce dialogue between referees and players

“Referees are not coaches,” is the line. Tell that to an independent observer of any of last weekend’s Six Nations matches and they would have you sectioned under the Mental Health Act. At every tackle, ruck, maul, scrum or kick, referees bark orders at players giving a running commentary of the match at ground level.

This mollycoddling of the players needs to cease. If it did, then the onus would be on the players to have a better understanding of the sport’s laws and the way in which they are interpreted and, in an ideal world, would result in fewer penalties being conceded.

9. Use TMO for try-scoring acts only

Rugby continues to be plagued by this. The TMO has become too powerful. The officials simply cannot spot everything, so there is no point in trying. The TMO’s powers should be downgraded with their only mandate confirming whether or not a try has been scored. The citing process should remain unchanged, however, so that any acts of foul play not seen or incorrectly dealt with by the officials can still be sanctioned.

Also, reverting back to the wording of ‘Try? Yes or no’ and ‘Is there any reason why a try cannot be awarded?’ would be prescient.

Forcing the referee and his assistants into making an “on-field decision”, as it is now, even in instances where they have no idea what has happened – often through no fault of their own – seems counterproductive and leaves spectators nonplussed.

10. Reduce the number of replacements

This has become a worn-out record. Even if World Rugby’s study concludes that, in the event of fewer replacements, the benefits to player welfare would be negligible, the rhythm of second halves is always harmed by continual stoppages for replacements.

11. Reduce penalties to two points

This is probably too radical for a quick fix, in fairness, but reducing the value of a shot at goal would surely result in fewer attempts at the posts and encourage teams to play until the end of their penalty advantage.

12. Finally, fix uncontested-scrum confusion

Yes, what happened to Italy in Dublin on Sunday is rare, it is minor and it is nuanced, but it also ruined one of the world game’s showpiece matches for no good reason. The regulation that forced the Azzurri down to 13 men is not fit for purpose; the swiftest of tweaks is all that would be required to ensure it never happened again.

All teams travel with reserve players who are not part of the match-day squad to cover late drop-outs. Why is the infrastructure not in place whereby the front-rowers among these non-playing reserves warm up with the match-day squad so that they are ready to play in such an eventuality?