Rugby’s descent into cynical play: Why neutral fans should back the All Blacks for the good of the game


The semifinal between England and South Africa was maybe one for the rugby purists, but it certainly did nothing to promote the game of rugby as a spectacle on a wider scale. Therefore, in my opinion, the best thing that can happen to the sport is for New Zealand to be crowned world champions.

It was a match decided by the fact sides are now incentivised to look for mysterious scrum penalties that are, more often than not, a lottery rather than an indication of skill.

The semi was a match punctuated by a stream of controversial three-pointers won by both teams, England and South Africa, cynically trying to slow the ball or kick the leather off it skyward.

As Matt Williams told Irish TV immediately after the game, “South Africa are not taking scrums [from free kicks] to deliver the ball, they are taking scrums looking for penalties…the scrum was never meant to be an endless stream of penalties, it was a means to restart the game.”

Somewhere during the past decade, rugby has lost its shine. For me, it was between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups when the game died on the hill of ‘player safety’ but rolled back down the same hill by becoming slower and longer.

The Lions series in 2021 was one of the saddest spectacles I have witnessed in sport. The rules that continually interrupt the flow of the game and befuddle fans in equal measure had ‘blown back’.

Administrators were worried about player safety, so what did they do: they tweaked rules to slow the game down so the players got larger and the hits got bigger – what a genius concept.

Rugby now resembles American Football, the embryo of sports concussion litigation, more than any other sport.

It is why we have seen seven forwards appearing on benches, water runners entering the field of play with increased frequency and traffic lights installed in coaching boxes.

There is no doubt that Rassie Erasmus and his crew of merry marauders have acted within the laws of the game. But the laws must be changed.

In a study, published in 2020 by the BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, it was revealed that the mean body mass of international players increased from 84.8kg in 1995 to 105.4kg in 2015. This is a staggering increase of almost 25 per cent.

Just as it looked like the average size of international players may be plateauing, well, along came Rassie.

If we are truly interested in prioritising player safety, increasing the average size of players is counterintuitive. An absurdity even.

After all, benches were originally enlarged from seven players to eight to ensure the safety of scrummagers by mandating a full replacement front row.

South Africa and England players contest the maul during their semifinal. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Now we have eight superbly fit, giant men on the field for 50 minutes of each test who are often replaced almost in full by six or even seven more for the final 30 minutes.

Legal, yep. Within the spirit of the game, not sure. Cynical, absolutely.

Yet, it is more than that. Not only do we have an emerging trend of more forwards being injected into the game, but we also have matches that regularly extend past 100 minutes.

Every second match is punctuated by scrum resets, long replays, on-field team meetings and player rub downs usually reserved for the treatment room.

Anyone who streams the Rugby World Cup on Stan will have seen the option to watch a ‘Mini Match’, 25 minutes of condensed footage. The thing is, you do not miss watching a full game with 55 minutes of stoppages.

It of course follows that with less running, and less need for aerobic capacity and endurance, individuals can play Rugby at increased weights and sizes. Again, it is the most recent example of the stupidity of World Rugby.

Not only are the risks shifted from the tackled to the tackler, but they are also unarguably exacerbated by larger people causing larger collisions.

All of that is of course before you think about the spectacle, about attracting fans to the game.

Scrums and mauls are great; box kicking, not so much. But surely the rule makers should be striving to achieve some kind of balance or compromise in the sport.

I read that the Ireland versus South Africa pool match produced a ‘riveting slug fest’. Brutal and relentless. Most games, played by teams of lesser quality, are just ‘slug fests’ and that is not good for rugby.

At one stage I had wondered why teams did not simply make the ball do the work, run big men around the park and then open defences up. But then I realised, it is because huge men who are already superbly fit are replaced by the same just as fatigue sets in.

How can backline attacks open up defences when player fatigue comes into play less often?

Just last year, during the three series played in the Southern Hemisphere, the Tests averaged 25 penalties or free kicks. That is a stoppage roughly every three minutes – before you even talk about set pieces.

What a match. What a finish. ????

The moment South Africa beat England to reach the #RWC2023 Final.

↳ Rugby World Cup 2023. Now Streaming. The Only Place to Watch Every Match. Ad-free. 4K UHD. Live & On Demand on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport.#StanSportAU #ENGvRSA

— Stan Sport Rugby (@StanSportRugby) October 21, 2023

On that topic, while the frequency of scrums and line-outs has decreased over the years, carries and tackles have vastly increased. It is the forwards doing the most tackling and carrying.

Interestingly, while forwards generally carry more than backs now, they do not make very many metres. Opta’s stats platform noted that during the 2019 World Cup, forwards carried 51 per cent of the time but made just 29 per cent of the meters and 23 per cent of line breaks. This year, with more forwards on the field, those stats will no doubt be even more skewed.

Let me be clear, this is not an attack on South Africa or a reaction to the Wallabies’ poor showing.

The Springbok staff have been astute and ingenious as you would expect and exploited the rules. Just as Steve Borthwick’s England almost did. But it must be said again, the rules need changing.

The number of forwards on benches should be capped at six next year as a starting point only.

Teams should also be restricted to using only four of eight replacements, five if a front-row forward is injured or concussed. The concept of ‘finishers’ must be done away with in full.

The length and number of stoppages in the name of ‘player welfare’ must also be reduced. If that means restricting TMO interventions or introducing an element of intent into refereeing dangerous play, then so be it.

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World Rugby has taken the game down a deplorable dead end that is illogical, contradictory and unlikely to safeguard player welfare, let alone attract new fans to the game. There is a place for dominant forward play just as there is a need to protect players.

But if that is at the expense of running rugby, or possession rugby, where the ball does some work, the game has lost more than it’s gained.

New Zealand are no angels but they at least play a game full of ingenuity, silky skill and endeavour. One that resembles the game of rugby I fell in love with 30 years ago as a small boy.

For that reason, this neutral will be backing the All Blacks this weekend.

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