Please see an article in The Times on Monday 25th May by Chief Rugby Correspondent Owen Slot
On the back page of this newspaper on Saturday, my colleague Martyn Ziegler broke the story that World Rugby was considering temporary law changes to reduce contact time between players and, thus, lessen the risk of coronavirus transmission. The response to the story was predictably loud and angry: that World Rugby was incompetent, that Ziegler was either a) wrong or b) a heretic and — the biggest curse of all — that they were all trying to turn rugby union into rugby league. It probably didn’t help that the headline on the story said that the game may scrap scrums. Most of the outrage probably came from those who saw that and read no further. As we are, though, we don’t know when rugby in Europe will return. We don’t know yet when the professionals will play again but we keep on hearing that it may be soon. We certainly don’t know when the semi-pro and amateur clubs will play again; schools and universities go back (in some form) in September and October yet no one has the faintest idea when they will start the rugby season or whether they will just scrap the whole thing. Under those circumstances, it would seem that World Rugby would have been scandalously incompetent if it had not started considering temporary law changes to help the game to return. In some shape or form. Clearly there will be a constituency of readers, here, whose jumpy keyboard fingertips are already itching to scroll to the comments section and say loudly and proudly that I am a heretic too. I know you are on the way down there, you frothing infuriati. Please be kind etc. However, also bear in mind the facts: that this almost certainly won’t touch the professional game, that World Rugby does not intend to change the laws but may instead suggest temporary, voluntary alterations, although it has not even concluded yet what, if any, alterations would ameliorate the situation. Its executive committee will not even discuss this until later this week. All it has done is to commission some investigatory studies to see whether it may work to allow for different sections of the game around the world to play an adapted version. This could well be the difference between some rugby and no rugby. A season or no season. Make your own mind up which you prefer. Just to get an idea of what those on the frontline think, yesterday I rang a director of rugby from a leading school, one from a leading university and one from a leading semi-pro club. Funnily enough, they all preferred some rugby to no rugby. Furthermore, they had all individually set about asking the same questions as World Rugby: if we can’t play rugby in the 100 per cent traditional way, then how can we adapt? As the club director said: “We are a business. If we are going to earn any money, we’ve got to show a product. In all aspects, we’ve got to look through a different lens.” So here it gets interesting. Rather than making this a Luddite “yes or no to rugby” decision, it becomes: how can we alter rugby without losing it? The close contact is obviously the problem. However, if you consider that rugby has an offside line and thus an enforced space between two teams, there is a kind of social distancing going on for part of the game anyway. You don’t have man-to-man marking like in football. Basketball has one-on-one marking and is a (mostly) indoor sport. Nevertheless, rugby still seems a more dangerous sport in terms of spreading Covid-19. The contact is closer. The definition of contact, according to the World Health Organisation, is face to face and within a metre for more than 15 minutes. Early analysis suggests that, in a single rugby game, contact for a player — even a scrummager — barely ever goes above 14 minutes. With rugby, because of the extreme nature of the contact, the 15-minute guideline probably doesn’t apply. However, to become safer — temporarily — the contact minutes still have to drop. The first, simplest influential change would be to ban the maul. Mauls almost always start at a lineout — in which case, lineout possession should now (yes, temporarily) have to be passed out by the scrum half and not taken in by the forwards.The tackle is intriguing here. Consider these two points: 1) the game’s administrators are already attempting to introduce a lower tackle because they believe it may lower the incidence of concussion; 2) Covid-19 is most likely to be spread in face-to-face contact. For two reasons then, we should enforce a lower tackle. Would this be such a revolution? Not in France, where they have been trialling it — tackling only below the waist — at community level since last autumn. What happens, then, at the breakdown? At this point, you start to make more influential changes to the game. However, you can limit and police the numbers allowed into a ruck. This already happens in age-group rugby: at under-11s, for instance, only two supporting players from each side are allowed into a ruck. The scrum is clearly the big problem: eight players on either side where contact could not be tighter. However, if you consider this as a time issue — a major part of your 15-minute limit — then it would be possible to speed up the scrum (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing anyway). Resetting scrums could be banned. After one collapse, the referee could award a free kick against the offending team. The feeding-in process could be sped up too: shoulders, touch, ball in. And no long shoves: it could be an offence if the ball isn’t out quickly. Alternatively, scrums could go completely uncontested. Yet here, changes begin to be more influential. In order to decrease contact further, your next solution is to reduce the number of players on the pitch. This could make it a 12-man game. (God forbid, its rugby league!) Or tens or sevens. Your next option is touch. At some point, your new game becomes increasingly designed for all-round athletes and squeezes out the front-rowers. This should not be taken lightly. If props around the country are lost to the game for 18 months, many will not come back. One solution could be to tinker with the seasons. Some schools have already had informal conversations along these lines: if we can’t play rugby in September, then why not a month’s cricket? You could then have a short sevens season and then see what form of the game becomes playable in November/December. Of course, each and every solution here is hypothetical. Sadly, it remains likely that rugby will not be played for a considerable time. If the University of Cambridge are not allowing lectures, they are hardly going to allow rugby union. Yet it is for governments to analyse the fight against coronavirus and decide what is permissible. And then it is for schools and universities and clubs — and World Rugby — to work out how to adapt.