Rob Baxter: World Rugby’s new law changes are madness – leave the game alone

Rob Baxter: World Rugby's new law changes are madness – leave the game alone
Exeter's director of rugby, Rob Baxter, has hit out at World Rugby - PA/Andrew Matthews

Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, has criticised World Rugby’s proposal for further law changes to attract new fans as ‘madness’.

Last month, the game’s governing body announced a five-stage plan to speed up the game with a tranche of law amendments - such as 20-minute red cards and the abolition of a scrum option from a free-kick and “Dupont’s” offside law - to be voted on by World Rugby’s council in May. Phase four of the plans will also see a specialist working group set up to examine the results of the community tackle-height trials across 11 unions and their “appropriateness for elite rugby”.

“We’re trying to grow the game and there’s no sport in the world that tries to grow by confusing new supporters every 12 months,” said Baxter.

“We need to stop changing the laws. The game was fine three or four years ago - and we didn’t need to change it then. 90 per cent of what we do in the law changes is to redo things that have been created by other law changes. It’s madness. We can’t talk about growing the game... you grow the game by introducing new players and people to it, but we’re confusing new people coming to the game every year by changing laws and interpretations. We’re preventing ourselves from allowing a good product to happen.

The proposed de-powering of scrum and maul is a particular bugbear for Baxter
The proposed de-powering of scrum and maul is a particular bugbear for Baxter - Shutterstock

“If they decide to make law changes then they have to decide to put a moratorium on not changing them anymore. Let’s settle down and get on with it. Now, it feels like some of the kick stuff they’re looking to introduce is almost to counteract what they brought in with the 50:22.”

The third phase of World Rugby’s plans encourage individual unions and competitions to implement closed trials of certain law variations “aimed at enhancing game continuity”. They include a scrum and line-out shot clock, the ability to call a mark from a restart and forcing scrum-halves to play the ball at mauls after one stoppage, not two. Baxter hopes that they do not reach the Premiership, with the de-powering of scrum and maul a particular bugbear for the 53-year-old.

“I kind of hope not,” Baxter added. “I kind of hope that we just leave things. They’re [already] reinforcing two or three things to let the game keep flowing - we don’t need to do any more than that. Some of the stuff I see: no free-kick option at scrum. We seem infatuated with thinking that de-powering the scrum and maul will create this game that everyone wants to come and watch. The more you de-power the scrum and maul, the more you’re going to create a game that people are not going to want to watch - because there’ll be no space.

‘I wish we’d stop changing the laws, it drives me potty’

“If there’s no free-kick option at a scrum, as soon as the scrum hits the floor or whatever, the back row are going to be up... there’s going to be so many things that people haven’t thought about, just like de-powering the maul. The best way to create space on a rugby field is to power up the maul. When people say ‘you can’t stop a maul’ - you can always stop a maul. You just have to put in as many or more people than the opposition. That’s how you stop it. People don’t want to do it because then there’s space in which tries can be scored. But that’s the whole point! So, keep the maul powerful, so teams have to commit bodies to it.

“Anyone who watched the Gloucester v Leicester game, Leicester’s maul, if they won penalties and got five metres out, kept them in the game. But when you watch it, Gloucester don’t put any players in! There’s one where they only put four players in there. Well, put more in there. There’s nothing wrong with what’s happening there, but Gloucester should put more players in. And if Leicester were to recognise that and play away and score a try somewhere else, everyone would turn around and go: ‘Great try.’ But they’re both part of the same thing, one creates the other. Anyway, that’s my rant over. I just wish we’d stop changing the laws, it drives me potty.”

Baxter’s arguments are fair and valid - apart from one key point

“Rant over,” was how Rob Baxter chose to end his monologue, after spending several minutes tearing into World Rugby’s latest raft of law variations. Normally, that is a phrase reserved for the conclusion of hot-takes; soliloquies which are full of heart and soul but which might stray somewhat from the realms of reality and the rational.

Not in Baxter’s case. For the most part, the words of the Exeter director of rugby could not be disputed. Baxter is right when he says that rugby is the only sport in the world which metamorphoses every 12 months and then wonders why new fans are choosing to spend their time viewing other sports. Baxter is right, too, when he says that the rugby authorities have become obsessed by the notion that “de-powering the scrum and maul will create this game that everyone wants to come and watch”. The reverse is true, he adds: “The more you de-power the scrum and maul, the more you’re going to create a game that people are not going to want to watch.”

The scrum and the maul are not perfect currently but making them less of a factor in games of rugby union is nonsensical. As Baxter highlights, it is these set-pieces which create space elsewhere. Rugby is an intricate ecosystem of many moving parts and World Rugby seems hell-bent on turning the sport into a highlights reel; the equivalent of only eating desserts whenever one goes out for a meal. The joy in rugby, as in most things, is in the juxtaposition between brutality and beauty. World Rugby seems to just want beauty.

The only disagreement I have with Baxter is his assertion that rugby needed no law tweaks at all. As I have written extensively in these pages, there are several minor tweaks that the authorities could have made which would have improved the sport while not alienating fans and altering its fabric. The abolition of the “Dupont” offside kick law should be seen as nothing but positive; so, too, the speeding up of the “use it” call at the back of rucks. These are not law changes, just emphases, and they are already having a material impact. Speeding up the scrum and line-out while keeping them tenets of the sport is the next aim, but after the scenes at the Stoop last Saturday I’m not sure if even more stopwatches are the answer.