Welcome to World Series Rugby

Perth: A new tournament starts in Australia on Friday. Called World Series Rugby, it will involve matches played by Western Force in Perth, which was dropped as one of the country’s super rugby sides at the end of last season, against the three Pacific islands, Hong Kong, the Rebels and the Crusaders.

It was devised by Andrew Forrest, the Force’s billionaire backer, who anticipates that next year the series will largely include sides from Asia. World Rugby has given its approval for a series of law changes to be adopted with the aim of speeding up the game.

The changes include rolling substitutions, up to 12 for each side; one minute for a scrum to be completed otherwise the team considered responsible for holding up play will be penalised; line-outs taken when the throwing team is ready, regardless of whether a line has been formed; and a power try worth seven points, with another potential two from the conversion, will be awarded if the continuous move starts in the scoring team’s 22. A green light on the goalposts will flash if a power try is on.

The aim is to stimulate the game in Australia where grounds for Super Rugby matches are often only one-quarter full and the club scene is flat. Rugby union facing an extinction crisis in Sydney ran a headline this week and if Perth is hardly a union city, it is far from alone.

The belief is that non-rugby followers could be enticed if games contain more action and fewer of the game’s arcane rituals, like scrummaging and competing for the ball in a line-out. The more tries the better, although how many points will a side score if a move starts outside its 22, from a scrum or a line-out say, but the ball is passed backwards into it before the decisive break is made?

The vast majority of the law changes in recent years have had two central themes: to increase the time the ball is in play and to promote player welfare, but the first has compromised the second. A Rugby Football Union review a few weeks into this season showed the rate of injuries in the Premiership had increased on the previous year because the increased time the ball was in play meant an increase in the number of tackles being made, the area responsible for the majority of injuries.

“The attacking side is getting more of the ball because the area is virtually not being challenged but facing a greater number of defenders, and we are therefore seeing more tackles,” said the RFU’s director of professional rugby, Nigel Melville. “The increase in tackles is significant as it involves ‘double tackles’ and with greater line speed. And we found last year that it was not the tackled player that predominantly was injured but the tackler.”

With the aim of the Perth series to keep the ball in play for longer, expect there to be more tackles and more injuries. The game will move further away from being a contest for possession to one where players smash into each other, no longer a refuge for all shapes and sizes.

Australia are not known for placing a premium on scrummaging, but the maximum 60-second affair runs the danger of turning it into a rugby league set-piece, put the ball in and away. Similarly with the line-out: throw in when the opposition are not ready and there is no tussle for possession, nor time for players to get a breather.

They will have to wait for a pause in play for injury, although no doubt there will be calls for a rolling substitute to be brought on when a player is down so play can continue and not count as one of the 12. Forrest says that next year’s series will see 10-point tries and set a time-limit on line-outs as well as scrums.

How long before both set-pieces are canned and the game moves almost as far away from its roots as the new 100-ball cricket tournament planned in England and Wales? Rugby by name rather than nature, a dumbing down. It is far easier to look at ways of promoting “entertainment” by squeezing features that make union distinct rather than trying to address the central problem of how to create space on the field so that players are not continually clattering into each other from the first minute to last.

Not a word about player safety in Perth, but the way the sport is going with each round of league and cup matches scarred by long-term injuries, it could face a class action down the line from players who reach middle age and find that they are unable to work because various parts of their bodies have broken down. Concussion is not the only issue.

World Rugby had little choice to approve the law changes with countries like Australia and Scotland, who from 2019-20 will be launching a Super 6 competition to help bridge the gap between club and professional rugby, looking for a stimulus; but it needs to tread warily and not be blindly led by commercial interests.