World Rugby considers radical plan to broaden game’s popularity

George Ford of England passes the ball as he is tackled by Hugo Keenan of Ireland during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium on March 9, 2024 in London, England
Changes to tackle heights will be trialed by World Rugby - Getty Images

World Rugby is considering lowering tackle height in the elite game as well as reducing the number of replacements as part of a radical plan to broaden the global appeal of the sport.

The role of the television match official (TMO) will also come under scrutiny by what has been termed ‘specialist working groups’ as part of the world governing body’s bid to make the game more entertaining.

The move follows World Rugby’s ‘shape of the game’ forum held at the end of last month designed to make rugby more appealing to new audiences in an increasingly competitive global sports and entertainment market.

Specialist working groups are to be established to further explore aspects identified by the forum, including the examination of the impact of the lowering of the tackle height in community rugby in 2023 to below the base of the sternum and to consider “appropriateness for elite rugby”. It is recognised, however, that this will not be possible in a closed trial, given the professionals are involved in domestic, cross-border and international stages.

The latest research on the impact of fatigue and the number and timing of replacements in the elite game to determine options “that might create more space on the field while improving injury rates” will also be examined, with recommendations to be put to the World Rugby council in May.

Global 20-minute red card trial

The overhaul will also include review of the sport’s disciplinary and sanctioning processes with the objective of “streamlining, increasing simplicity, consistency and fan understanding.”

World Rugby says key consideration will be the potential to combine stronger off-field sanctions for foul play with “a global red card trial where a carded player is removed for the duration of the match but may be replaced by another player after 20 minutes”.

A review of disciplinary sanctions could also see it move away from its current process-heavy legal system.

Clampdown on caterpillar rucks

The new five-phase approach is designed to explore, adopt and trial the key outcomes centred on speeding the game up, encouraging greater ball-in-play time, reducing stoppages and increasing welfare outcomes.

The first phase, which comes into effect on Tuesday, will result in referees being asked to call for players to use the ball more quickly, from breakdowns, beginning a five-second count to “use it” earlier as part of a move to eradicate the use of ‘caterpillar rucks’.

Hookers will be expected to maintain a “full brake foot” to aid scrum stability and safety during the engagement sequence, and a clampdown on water carriers speaking to referees and restrictions on their entry to the field of play.

Argentina's scrum-half Tomas Cubelli (top) and Argentina's hooker Agustin Creevy vie in a maul during the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between France and Argentina at the Tokyo Stadium in Tokyo on September 21, 2019.
There will be changes to how scrums operate - AFP/Franck Fife

Three more law adjustments will be made to the World Rugby council ahead of its meeting on May 9 to effectively scrap the ‘Dupont Law’ (that exploited a loop-hole where previously offside attackers are allowed to approach and tackle the ball receiver once he has run forward five metres) to reduce kick tennis, the removal of the scrum option from a free-kick at a scrum and outlawing the ‘croc roll’.

‘Shot clock’ extended to scrums and lineouts

The unions and leagues will also be encouraged to stage closed-law trials including the expansion of the shot clock for scrums and lineouts and reduced kicking time, the ability to mark the ball inside the 22 metre line from a restart, promoting attacking options; ‘play on’ for lineout not straight if the throw in is uncontested, using the ball from a maul when it is stopped once, not twice, as well as protection of the nine at the base of the scrum, ruck and maul.

World Rugby is to also establish ‘rugby labs’ to test out new aspects of law in a controlled environment evaluated by data and player feedback, including scrum engagement sequence and the tackle/ruck area.

‘Embracing change – and targeting entertainment first’

Targeting the next generation of supporters will also include a review of the language and terminology that is used within the game, including how it is marketed and presented, to improve the in-stadium experience.

“Change is in rugby’s DNA,” said Bill Beaumont, World Rugby chairman. “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. The moves that we are making are grounded in our commitment to increasing relevance on a global basis and 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.”

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