Would the outcome of last year’s World Cup have been different had teams been allowed to make five replacements rather than eight? The winners, South Africa, defused opponents through their bomb squad, five tight forwards who came off the bench in the second half along with a foraging flanker to allow an unrelenting 80-minute physical onslaught.
England lost in the final to South Africa, whose bomb squad was assisted by the early injury to Kyle Sinckler, and their head coach, Eddie Jones, has called for the number of replacements to be cut from eight to five or six as part of a plan to speed up the game: referees who constantly refer decisions to others and dithering television match officials were also in his target sight.
Jones has long spoken of the lack of space on the pitch and that players suffering from fatigue in the final 25 minutes would be one way of creating it: the survival of the fittest. A counter-argument is that speeding up matches would make union less a game for all sizes and more one of identikits.
As the game in Europe prepares to come out of lockdown, there will be a review of some of its parts, not least because the effect of the pandemic on the community game will be different to the professional level that can afford, just about, regular testing of players and staff and almost operate in a bubble.
Those who work to play will be taking far more of a risk when their game resumes. Will scrums be considered safe? Or, given its greater prevalence, the tackle area where close contact is unavoidable and can be sustained? Attention in much of the past four months has been on the solvency of unions and clubs, wage cuts for players, the resumption of the season and the international schedule for the autumn following the cancellation of this month’s scheduled tours in the south.
And rightly so given it is the part of the game that funds everything else, but sport is built from the bottom up and while, in time, the financial issues that are urgent will ease, if in part due to cuts that may become permanent, confidence will need to be built up among those in the community game, players and parents especially, that it is safe to play.
Cost will rule out mass testing so good practice, such as sanitisation, not sharing anything and arriving at a ground separately in kit and leaving immediately after the final whistle, will count, at the expense of the social side of rugby, which is one reason for playing, but changes on the field will need to be made.
World Rugby was derided for the Covid-19 changes it announced, but they were an attempt to allay concerns that union could not be a safe sport as long as coronavirus was in circulation. It is here that Jones’s wish for a decluttered game may be realised: no reset scrums with the set piece perhaps becoming uncontested and referees quick to shout ruck to limit the contest for possession after a tackle.
If at the professional level the game becomes as safe as safe can be for those involved, what about those who pay to watch, with crowds expected to be allowed through the gates from October? The average season-ticket holder in the Premiership is a 50-year-old white male, not the profile that will be in a rush to get on a packed train, sit among a throng or queue for the toilets until a vaccine is found.
The risks from Covid-19 increase with age, so the 40,000 spectators the Rugby Football Union hopes will travel to Twickenham in November will probably have a lower average age than the 80,000 present last March for the victory over Wales (how will the crush for trains at Twickenham Station after the match be managed?)
Rugby will need to lower the average age of its audience if it is to capitalise on the post-pandemic world and attract new money. It is hard to see the value of television contracts appreciating significantly unless a player such as Amazon becomes involved. Its target would be the 18-34 year olds and a way to attract them would be to simplify a game that for those unfamiliar with it can be as baffling as a sermon in Latin.
Frequent stoppages would not be a magnet. A strength of football is that it does not need translation and it does not suffer from constant interruptions, one reason why VAR has not been universally popular, never mind that any technology should be used only to determine matters of fact, not those that invite opinion.
The balance between tradition and progress used to be weighted in the favour of the former for more than a century in rugby union. It is losing the battle now, victim of the need for greater investment, which is why CVC has been able to find partners for, in effect, slot-machine money.
The pandemic will drive change in the professional game because it has exposed foundations built on swampland and at amateur level because a sport based on physical confrontation and socialising holds risk. Where the two collide, the outcome is likely to be a change in emphasis that will please Jones, a Covid-19 yearning for space rather than contact.
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