Make Rugby Pitches Bigger Now!
Many commentators on rugby have been agonising over their pints about this for decades. And the admirable but plodding blindside flanker that is poor old Eddie Butler misses the wood for the trees again.
He bemoans how the game is being stifled into physical uniformity at the expense of traditional skills and diversity, and a monstrous injury toll created by massive dependence on the contact game and upper body power. He arrives at the conclusion:
“Space is the name of the new game. The aim of the ‘protocol’, the instruction to referees to be strict at the ruck, was to make everybody think afresh about that discipline: not so much the ‘how’ but the ‘why’ in the first place.
Teams that are thinking space before contact – Harlequins, Bath, London Irish – are prospering. Newcastle, incidentally, are as open-minded as any of those, but Jonny, who had to be physically removed from rucks by his own England team-mates in 2003, is injured again.”
The post-war history of rugby has been one of desperate legal tinkerings to try to create more space and fluidity in the game in the face of a successive generations of larger, fitter post NHS players. All of which amounts to simply trying to put a quart into a pint pot. Has it never crossed the minds of Eddie Butler and his fellow experts, or that of the legislators, that maybe the best course would be to stop trying to make the pitch legally bigger and simply make it bigger? Move the corner flags a couple of yards. Is this bit of lateral thinking beyond them?
The extra width would make a significant difference, and exploit the new fitness of players with their fixed reaction times to create a sport in which the incentive is to pass, not go to ground, and our star players would play a bit more often, and wings could still be small and locks enormous, and everything in between. Shane Williams would double his try-count.
But the expense! The accountants who bring such joy to the world are squealing already. Like all accountants of their generation they are remarkably short-sighted, and cannot understand that the two rows lost at the front are merely two of the fifteen empty rows at the back at most matches. So as the more open game will mean that the stands are fuller more of the time, even the accountants would be happy if only they could learn basic short division.
And ultimately, if the professional game continues to obey its own natural laws, the decision to accomodate its needs will become overriding – and profitable. ‘Big Rugby‘ sold on its liberating non-secret ingredient would literally be a ‘game-changer’.
Bigger pitches are the future of rugby. What is the cost of player safety?
On a pitch 100 metres long by 70 metres wide, each of the 30 players on the pitch has 233.333333 square metres to avoid thumping, which seems a lot, but apparently is still not enough to have saved the career of England’s most talented outside half since Richard Sharpe. Given that human reaction time is relatively fixed, as is the eventual top speed of a running man, the only answer to a race of ever bigger, ever faster players, is to give them all more room to play in. The athletics authorities manipulated the javelin when its advances threatened the future of the sport. It is time for the rugby authorities to alter the one law which as stayed the same since Twickenham was a cabbage patch and the the average adult man was much smaller, punier and slower than today – the size of the pitch.
Just one law needs to be ameded, one of the oldest and least altered since codification.
Law 1.2 Required dimensions for the playing enclosure
(a) Dimensions. The field of play does not exceed 100 metres in length. Each in-goal does not exceed 22 metres in length. The playing area does not exceed 70 metres in width.
To be amended for elite level to:
1.2 Required dimensions for the playing enclosure
(a) Dimensions. The minimum field of play 100 metres in length.
Each in-goal does not exceed 22 metres in length.
The minimum width 80 metres.
The result will be fewer injuries, easier refereeing and more clarity and simplicity in a game becoming a legal monster, more incentive to pass, less incentive to bulk up – with all the drug abuse that implies..etc etc.. All good, nothing bad.
Alan Watkins, poet of rugby commentators, once demanded with pride:
But players have continued to grow and speed up, and little has been heard of Watkins’ plea for space. Or of the research undertaken into pitch sizes by Dick Best during the early stages of professionalisation.
However much more spectacular and bone-crunching professional rugby may be, it must be remembered that the 15-man game was never designed to be a professional sport, with all the possible mercenary problems. It is surely time that modern elite players were allowed the same room to express themselves they were when the size and physique of the average player would be dwarfed now by any self-respecting schoolboy team. See any international programme from the 1960’s for a revelation.
October 10, 2008
(Evidence that the effect of pitch width is widely recognised within the sport at the highest level.)
Australia coach Eddie Jones made an official complaint to the International Rugby Board following his side’s 31-14 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield. Jones said pitch width had been reduced overnight to suit Scotland in the face of the Wallabies’ firepower out wide..
Strategic pitch-narrowing to choke play must have been standard practice for years, whatever the cost in spectacle and cartilege. It therefore follows that widening the pitch would have the opposite effect, and that as players get even larger and faster and nastier, and the differences between traditional positions disappear, the question of play space becomes even more urgent, and the price paid for the hidebound attitude to the size of the pitch even greater in human terms, and to the sport as a spectacle.
When many games are now decided by almost random decisions taken by hopeful referees about unseen activities at the bottom of rucks and mauls, that sport is in trouble. Commentators and spectators are left bemused at both the decisions and the laws which dictate that players are penalised for not taking actions which are physically impossible (rolling away from a tackle when under a pile of players) or are rewarded for taking actions which are completely unintuitive (not competing for a ball on the ground when arriving first at the breakdown). An extra incentive to move the ball wide and free would begin to undo some of this insanity and preserve some of the essential diversity of the game, which is now being flattened to cater for the ever-increasing need for sheer firepower.
When the injury list becomes gladiatorial, the sport is in even deeper trouble. The glories of the 2015 world cup may never be enjoyed as unconditionally again. In the back of the mind of every watching parent may be the fear of seeing a player very seriously injured on live TV. This audience may well be partly replaced by the kind of ghouls who frequent cage-fights. But then rugby will be as dead as boxing.