Rugby Union: Time to entertain the 13-man idea

Chris Rea believes a Scottish experiment could be the game's salvation
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The Independent Online
SUDBURY, home of Wasps RFC, is one of the most hospitable grounds in the land. The welcome to the public is as genuinely warm as the friendship and fellowship within the club. But whatever else can be said of last Saturday's league match against Bath, it did not represent value for money for spectators who, hereafter, will be demanding just that of a sport whose players are paid to provide pleasure.

The admission price of pounds 8 plus car parking at pounds 2 might have been acceptable had there been a modicum of entertainment on the field. What we got, however, was 80 minutes of unrelenting tedium. What sporadic action there was provided a lamentable spectacle. It was a game of low skill and poor decision-making stifled by the spoilers, choked by the laws and finally asphyxiated by the sheer weight of numbers on the field. It was precisely the same when Bath played at Leicester earlier in the season and although the common factor in both matches is Bath, the fault is no more theirs than it is Wasps' or Leicester's.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a game which, when it is played by three of the most skilled sides in England, sinks to such levels of impoverishment. There are a number of valid reasons, one being that through the extensive, and some would say obsessive, use of videos, the sides know all there is to know about each other. Nothing is left to the imagination although even if it were one suspects that attitudes in this country are so deeply entrenched against innovation that little would change.

The same game played under exactly the same laws in New Zeland, South Africa and Australia looks completely different, but why should we pay heed to that when we have been blithely ignoring it for 20 years? Because in the southern hemisphere, particularly New Zealand and Australia, rugby union has been waging a bitter campaign of survival against the rival football codes. Put quite simply, if it didn't brush up its act it would perish. And now we are about to learn the same harsh lesson in this country. There must be enlightened forces at work, although most of the initiatives so far, such as the points-for-tries scheme in Wales, are contrived nonsense. But in Scotland an experiment which was tried last season could prove to be the game's salvation. At the very least it would help prepare rugby union for the unification of the codes which now seems as inevitable as professionalism being the consequence of the decision to embrace sponsorship.

The driving force behind the experiment was Alan Hosie, the former international referee now convenor of the SRU's laws advisory panel and a representative on the international board. With recommendations from leading players, referees and technical staff, Hosie organised a 13-a-side game among players from clubs in Glasgow. "We realised that people going to watch club matches in Scotland were not getting value for money," Hosie said. "The game just wasn't entertaining enough."

There were seven backs and six forwards and the scrum packed down 3-2- 1. The laws were left alone, save for two significant alterations. The only time the No 8, in this case the hindmost man in the scrum, could detach from it was when he picked up the ball and ran. The other major change was the increase in value of a penalty awarded for killing the ball to seven points. "Killers of the ball are the murderers of the game and in my book murderers should be hanged," Hosie said. It had a spectacular effect. One side who came over the top twice in the first five minutes found themselves 14 points down. Never again in the match was that offence committed.

The half-backs and threequarters couldn't believe their luck. They had time and space. They ran, they broke, they scored tries. "So much so," Hosie recalled, "that before the end they were so knackered they were kicking the ball into touch." Hosie considers that the experiment was not an unqualified success; there would need to be major refinements before the prototype could take to the road. But the product was as enjoyable for the players as it was entertaining for the spectators and was greatly enhanced by the fact that the ball was in play for longer periods. The scrum and line-outs were fully contested but with fewer bodies in the way they were much easier to police. "It has always concerned me that once the game went professional there are far too many grey areas which provide a refuge for the lawbreakers," Hosie said. "And although the ruck and maul remain areas for potential mayhem, the fact that there are four fewer players involved makes it that much easier for the referees to spot the culprits."

It is Hosie's intention to hold further trials to obtain a more accurate evaluation of the experiment. "We were sufficiently excited by what we saw last season to want to have another look," Hosie said. For those of us who have squirmed through the drabness of the first six weeks of this season, the sooner Alan Hosie and his researchers can complete their experiment and get it out of the laboratories on to the field, the better.