Allan Massie: Speeding up rugby a weighty issue

Former Leicester and England star Austin Healey favours speeding up the game. Picture: Getty
Former Leicester and England star Austin Healey favours speeding up the game. Picture: Getty
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Austin Healey was never one of my favourite players. Irritating little fellow, I thought, even while admitting he was pretty good. He’s much the same now that he works in the media. Sometimes silly, sometimes very much on the ball. He had a good piece the other day about the need to speed the game up in order to get players’ weight down. It was prompted, of course, by the alarming number of serious injuries that result from the collisions between the dinosaur monsters who now roam the field. Make them run more, with fewer stoppages to let them recover from their exertions, and there will be fewer serious injuries, he said.

It would be nice to think he is right. The number of injuries, especially head injuries, is worrying, and should be occupying the attention of the legislators. The Leicester, England and Lions lock, Geoff Parling, has been concussed twice this season already. It’s been reported that he has suffered five concussions in 12 months. If he was a boxer, I would like to think that the British Boxing Board of Control would be withdrawing his licence to fight.

Law changes are not needed to make some injuries less likely. Illegal tackling with no use of the arms too often goes unpunished. So does the dangerous practice of the ball-carrier leading with his forearm as he takes a tackle. And too many high tackles escape penalty. If there are no significant changes in the application of the laws, I foresee the day when it will be necessary to make any tackle above the waist illegal.

Speeding up the game is desirable for reasons other than the one offered by Healey. There are far too many stoppages. It is not only that scrums take too long, though this is a common complaint. There is usually an interval before the scrum even forms, because a puffing prop will go down on one knee indicating that he requires medical assistance. More often than not, one suspects that all he requires is time to get his breath back.

Then referees are far too indulgent when the forwards of the team that will be throwing into the line-out approach it at snail-speed. Once the line-out is formed, a free kick may be awarded against a hooker who delays the throw. Why not against the team that takes an age to get into position? And if one of their forwards is down on his knee calling for medical help, too bad. You don’t need all your forwards in a line-out anyway.

Kicks at goal take far too long. One recognises that they are important and the kicker needs time to compose himself, but, given that it is quite usual for there to be at least ten attempted goal-kicks in a match, the preparation, including the apparently obligatory swig from a water-bottle, may take anything between 15 and 20 minutes out of playing time. This also gives the mastadons Healey complains of another doubtless very welcome rest. Happily, there is an obvious solution, already adopted in the seven-a-side game. Scrap place-kicks; substitute drop-kicks.

Professional rugby matches, from kick-off to final whistle, now frequently last two hours. This is ridiculous and the game is in danger of becoming as much of a prolonged stop-start affair as American football. Three suggestions. One: revert to use of the TMO only to decide whether a ball has been properly grounded over the try-line and put a time-limit on his scrutiny. Two: revert to the old practice of a five-minute interval at half-time, with teams remaining on the field. This is long enough for TV’s commercial break. Three: reduce the number of replacements allowed. Coaches won’t like this one because intelligent use of “the bench” has become a valued skill, which will sometimes make a difference between winning and losing. Nevertheless, I don’t know any spectator who approves of the lavish use of substitutes and, often, a match loses all shape as they flood the field in the final quarter.

Speeding the game up, Gregor Townsend remarked in his column here on Thursday, referring to law changes being experimented with in Australia, makes use of the bench important “as players are really tired after 60 minutes”. No doubt. But surely this should reward the fitter team, which may well, as Healey avers, be the one whose players carry less body weight. And wouldn’t this be a good thing?

One of the other experimental laws sees the value of a conversion raised from two points to three – good – and the value of a penalty and drop-goal reduced from three to two. I am doubtful about this. Teams may more readily concede penalties if they cost less, though it may be that one result would be fewer attempts at goal, more use of kicks for touch in the opposition 22 and more tap penalties. Except for the quick tap and go, most tap penalties are at present pretty useless because teams rarely have any idea of how to use them, other than having a forward run into a tackle to set up a ruck. Boring.

And it is surely a mistake to reduce the value of a drop goal, because this demands either a moment of quick thinking or intelligent manoeuvring through a series of phases to set up a position from which a drop-goal is possible. Munster, in the days of Ronan O’Gara, did this time and again brilliantly.