The game they play in heaven?

Last night I went to my third Rugby test. I think it was my third. They all sort of blend together. It was definitely the first time I’ve seen the All Blacks play, and the Haka was pretty incredible – even from our spot behind the try line.

We were lucky enough to score tickets in the Qantas Wallabies Hood – that means we got to wear these (a bargain at $15 – but a steal, for us, because you get them for free with seats in the hood)…

Robyn loves Union. She comes from a family of Union lovers. I try pretty hard to tolerate it – and I’ve watched enough to understand some of the nuances of the game – like what constitutes a penalty in the breakdown. I watched enough when I was a kid to know that the international Rugby being played now is nothing like the attractive Rugby of old – even if it’s no longer a case of playing force-em-backs until you get a good enough chance to run the ball.

The game was close, which added an element of tension – and there was a post-siren chance that either team could snatch victory in a deadlocked contest – but tension and drama do not make a game inherently worth watching. I enjoyed watching the game with Robyn and my father-in-law – but not so much with the boorish All Blacks fans standing behind me, one of whom inadvertently spat in my face while laughing at our ridiculous hoods, and then, as he got more intoxicated, began harassing the poor lady next to us. About her hat. Because new material was beyond his wit and remit. His was the role of “drunken idiot who ruins the experience for everybody,” and he played the role with aplomb.

I don’t want to cover old ground too much – in terms of why I think Rugby League is, objectively, the superior game. There’s a list here. I stand by it.

I simply wish to cover the problems with Rugby Union, as I see them…

Fans of Union used to argue that it is a “free flowing” game, where the ball is in play. This is a throwback to the halcyon days where players kicked for position and the ball moved quickly – though this, too, may be a myth – it isn’t true of the modern game. There are stats from this season’s Super 15 competition that make this pretty clear. These stats matched my experience last night, where every point was scored from a penalty kick and there were stacks of errors and scrums.

Lets look at the facts.

Union officials are celebrating the “improvement” in the time the ball spends in play since 1991 from 31% to 44%. SANZAR – the organising body responsible for the Super 15 – is celebrating that the ball, on average, was in play about 44% of game time this season. Just 35 minutes per game. The clock doesn’t really stop in union – which means tired players dawdle to scrums, meander their way down the field to lineouts, and stop for tea and crumpets every time a penalty shot is being taken in a bizarre athletic filibuster.

It’s not like there are long periods where the ball is in play followed by long stoppages either. It’s stop start stop start stop start… Here’s a stat from this PDF analysis of stoppages in the 2012 Super 15 season:

“The average number of stoppages per game was 57. Each stoppage averaged 49.5 seconds while each time ball was in play averaged 37.4 seconds.”

People defend Union on the basis that it’s a game of tactics, possession, and field position – which is true – but there is no ball sport this cannot be said of. Except, perhaps, for golf, where the less time the ball is in your possession the better – though the other two elements are true.

What Union is not, in its current form, is an entertaining spectacle for viewers, a free flowing athletic contest, where individuals other than the goal kicker are able to demonstrate any form of prowess, providing value for money. What it is is a game of chess, where players shift around the field trying not to lose any advantage, rather than trying to gain any, hoping to eventually earn a penalty, where they, provided the ball is anywhere within 50 metres of the goal posts, will take a shot at goal and earn 3 points – more than half the points available for an unconverted try. Even field goal fests would be more entertaining viewing than what was offered last night.

By my calculation, on the basis of these stats, the ball was out of play for 23 minutes of penalty goal time last night – that’s the time between a penalty being given, the option being chosen, the player lining up the kick, and whatever restart is required. And I reckon last night’s kicks took longer than normal because some of them were from a long way out, and only one or two were relatively straightforward jobs from right in front.

I understand it was an historic draw for an understrength Australian team coming up against arguably the best team of the modern era, or ever (though the All Blacks are missing a couple of faces from their World Cup win – notably Brad Thorn – who today signed on to play another year of Super Rugby, and Sonny Bill Williams – who is boxing/galavanting/whatever his doyen Khoder Nasser is arranging him to do on some other corner of the globe).

I understand that the scrappiness of last night’s game was the result of a high pressure environment with inexperienced players taking on this machine.

But there’s no excusing, or hiding from the fact, that all the points scored last night were a result of taking the no-risk option, and came at the expense of any real form of attack – and that the ball was in play for less than half the game.

I, for one, hope the sport we play in heaven looks nothing like last night’s game. The only real winners last night were League, Football (soccer), and AFL – the sports competing for the hearts and minds of Australian sporting fans – even the long term supporters catching the bus home with us last night were disillusioned by the outcome and process of last night’s game. So I know I’m not alone in thinking this…

How would you fix Union? Or am I off the planet – is Rugby still deserving of beatification?


Brad says:

You should have gone to some of the Reds games last year! Free flowing, attacking, lots of ball movement from wing to wing, lots of tries.

Nathan Campbell says:

This may be true – but according to the stats – I got a funky excel spreadsheet at one of the links above – the ball was in play, in all Reds games, home and away, for an average of 35.29 minutes a game. So while it might have been free flowing with the ball in hand – for an average of 46 minutes a game (accounting for post buzzer play), it wasn’t flowing at all.

Gary Ware says:

Six penalty goals apiece and no tries is the perfect game of rugby.
If they wanted to fix it they’d reduce the value of penalties (and maybe drop goals) to two points.
Ripping last five minutes, though.

Peter says:

Sigh. Aussies. Watching the Super rugby this year, it was kind of depressing how boring and dreary the Aussie games were. It could be that Aussies are just hopeless rugby players. Or just that there’s really not enough quality players to make 5 teams. The Chiefs were fantastic to watch this year. And as for the Wallabies, I think they’ve just followed up on where the Super rugby teams started.
As for league, I don’t really care if the ball’s in play more, it doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. But hey, different people like different things. Who would have thought?
(Sorry about the drunken All Blacks fan… they’re really not all like that. I sat in the cheap seats for an All Blacks game here in Hamilton, wearing a Springbok shirt. I didn’t get abused and spat on at all…)