The truth about the impact of rugby’s infuriating stoppages on the action


Rugby chatter is obsessed with time. Oldtimers and nostalgists lament how “slow” the game has become, clogged with box kicks.

“The test at the end of the world” is engraved in the brains as if it were de rigueur. Our skill levels, and those of our heroes, increase with the uneven passage of time and memory loss. Wildly emphatic and erroneous belief is more humane than unbiased observation.

Time. Physics has taught us that time is much less certain than we thought. Time vanishes more than it flies. Not as simple as you think, time is not uniform, even from one floor to another, it moves at different speeds; from the Dead Sea to Everest, the gap is striking.

Time zones are fictions, just as time itself is full of structures and layers that primarily serve to make life easier, not more real. Escape our atmosphere and immediately the illusion of a “time constant” is stripped from an astronaut. When our great-grandfathers were born, the approximation of time was more tangible: each watch, each clock, each city, each place “kept” time as best it could.

When we remember events or try, we estimate, guess and imagine. As a seasoned investigator, I have learned to accept the subtle distinctions and distortions of witnesses, no one necessarily lying intentionally. Faced with external error proof; many simply dig deeper and make me part of a larger conspiracy that runs things.

We are not guided by rationality. Reason arbitrates. But he does not animate. We like to believe our memories. Our myths.

I don’t remember the long Western Province No. 8 Morne du Plessis, whose awkward offloads cried out for their rarity in the game of the 70s and 80s, never hitting on a ball. Never. And I saw almost every one of his matches at Newlands. But of course he did.

The average modern player has better hands than the best old hands. In the 1987 Rugby World Cup there were 32 scrums per game. In 1991, 31 on average. In 2015 and 2019 it was 13-14 per game (and yet generated more penalties than in the first two Cups!)

StatsPerform has an in-depth look at how rugby has evolved over time, across time and around time.

The fact is that we have found more time in rugby. Within 80 minutes, we reduced melee to a third of the old levels. A third!

Similarly, line-ups have become rare: 25 on average per match in 2015 and 2019, down sharply from 1987 (45) and 1991 (39).

ELV 19 was a big reason: before this change, you could switch back to 22 (or run back), kick hard and not suffer like a team would now. Another is that defensive teams of yesteryear were much more likely to steal a lineout (41% of the time in the 1991 Cup) than now (9% stolen in 2019) after the lifting was nearly perfected.

Thus, it was more tempting to create lineups, which were almost draws. Now 23% of kicks are box kicks, which are rarely aimed at touchdown (in 1987/1991 box kicks were less than 10% of kicks).

Add the two set pieces together and you see from 1987/1991 to 2015/2019 we have cut them by almost half. Even if we assume slow resets or lineouts, it should come as no surprise that the ball in play has increased in rugby. How could he not?

Indeed, in 1995, the ball in play was only 25:45 minutes on average. The last World Cup saw it at 34:21 minutes: a 33% increase in the ball in play.

In case our amateur (or real) statisticians hesitate to stop in 2019, the ball in play in the Six Nations has also increased, peaking recently in 2021 at a remarkable 38:21 minutes!

A match with less than 30 minutes of the ball in play is agonizing for the modern fan; that was almost every game watched in the 80s.

So if we’re honest and don’t let our time-laden brains confuse us, we’ll all agree that the measured time period in which rugby is actively played has increased over the years. More rugby is played in the 80s.

That doesn’t mean it’s more tiring, because there are more breaks. The Waterboys, the TMO looks, the fake injuries and the protracted, shameless pre-kick routines of the goal kickers provide breaks.

Tea time has become tea time. Ask for the tee. Expect. Position it. Get caught by the referee. Reset. Do a double clutch. Prancing. Looking at Mother Mary. Genuflexion.
Tearing a ritual fart. Then, swaying, praying, sashaying. Finally, a bloody kick.

(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

But still, with all that said, the difference between 25 and 35 minutes of the ball in play is palpable.

With players much taller, somewhat faster and considerably more powerful in contact, the fact that playing time has increased (as well as the reduction in set piece formations) has meant that the average number of carries and tackles (and therefore rucks) has also risen sharply from the 1980s until today.

At the first three Rugby World Cups, teams averaged between 77 and 86 wear a game; and 48-58 tackles. Jump to 2015 and 2019 and the average carry load was 114; tackles: 124.

Consequently, the average number of rucks in 1987/1991 (27 per game) exploded to the current average of 82-83 rucks.

World Rugby: no longer wonder about the multiplication of head injuries.

No matter how many cards ruffled, when taller, faster players carry 40 times more per game, tackle twice as many, and clear or keep three times more rucks, your overall total and collision strength increased along with your risk litigation for increased risk of CTE.

A single player can now make more tackles than an entire team in 1987. When Moana Pasifika was finally able to play her first Super Rugby Pacific game, the Crusaders welcomed them into the competition by forcing the newcomers to attempt 233 tackles.

It would have taken six games of the 1987 Rugby World Cup to equal that tally. Glaswegian Jonny Gray made 43 tackles in a Pro14 game against Leinster in 2021. Just try this: forcefully charge into a bloody tackle bag 43 times and see how you feel. Now transform the bag into Tadgh Furlong.

As players have improved their lateral quickness, fitness, and defensive organization, they miss and drop fewer tackles. Now, coaches want to see a 90% success rate, with a higher “dominant” proportion. In 1987, the average missed tackle rate was 30%!

So more playing time, fitter beefier men, stronger players, more rough contact phases in tackles and rucks, much faster defensive line speed, fewer missed tackles and less time grateful past from set pieces: read the recipe for the fight for safety.

And even. Yet we yearn for more. More time.

Even though the “not in game” time has decreased, it has mysteriously increased. The 2021 Lions Series has annoyed much of the neutral rugby world by having hour-long halves.

As we learned about [Episode 9] From the Roar Rugby podcast of Major League Rugby refereeing boss Jonathan Kaplan, MLR tried to find more time on the clock by testing variations of the law:

Kickers have 60 seconds instead of 90 to take a penalty or a conversion, and have a timer.

Seven points are awarded if a try is scored under the posts; no conversion needed.

The number of scrums is capped at two per incident: the original plus one reset. If the reset fails, the referee must make a decision.

Ninety seconds is too long for a kick. Take a look back at one of the most impressive kicks in rugby history: Frans Steyn in Hamilton, New Zealand, in 2009. He took three out of three penalties from his own half. His average time to kick? About twelve seconds.

Golf has studied the effect of standing over a ball on a tee, and the conclusion is clear: no one hits it better after 15 seconds of hustle and meditation. Any extended time on the tee only tightens muscles and nerves. But, kicking coaches will say, they have to bring the heart rate down. Tennis has a service clock, and at the end of a set, a top player’s heart races, but can still find the court. Just like an opener, in 30 or 45 seconds. And if not, it will only be a test of his skills, anyway.

A unique reset rule for Scrum is more problematic. Referees often guess, but that forces an even crazier guess.

The answer may be to freeze the clock from the time scrum is called until the “power it” command is given. We freeze time to get more.

Another possible time harvesting moment is during the “corner kick”. Have the team pick sticks or hit within a set time limit, and the moment the hit is found, time runs out. More milkman walking 40 yards to the spot.

No alignment conferences. In fact, apply the five-second “use it” ruck rule.

Much less discussion between referees and players. Just do the ten meter walk.

And stop pulling players up on quick taps that were pretty close to the imaginary mark.

To end where we started. There is no single time. Games feel longer or shorter depending on action, timing and memory, and often depending on who won or lost.

The quarter-final in Wellington which the Boks lost to David Pocock lasted about three hours because it was a horror show, but probably passed for some. The guy blowing Waltzing Matilda on a sax outside our hotel also made the wee hours go by slowly.

If we add more action, we will have more injuries. If we subtract the stop, we will have more exhaustion. If we reduce the start time, we might miss a few extra kicks (or will we?).

What do you say, Roarers?




Sports Grp2

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button