It’s September and the 2017/18 Aviva Premiership season has launched. Looking to engage with new fans, the changes are designed to make it a better game. Looking at the Aviva Premiership new laws, Ben Rigby asks “better game, but is it a better spectator sport?”
Designed by World Rugby to highlight the strength of the game–fast, exhilarating and easy to understand. The new law changes are aimed at growing the sport, with even further market reach. Expansion is at the core of Rugby Union’s agenda with a renewed vigour to become an even greater spectator sport.
Making the game global with advances into foreign markets is at the heart of World Rugby’s strategy heading into the 2019 Rugby World Cup. With an eye on growth, Japan may host the final RWC tournament with only 20 teams competing–as the addition of a further four ’emerging nations’ in 2023, comes more into focus.
Attracting more viewers over the last season, and during the recent Women’s Rugby World Cup, expansion is also a hot topic domestically. Specifically, as Premiership Rugby attempts to broaden the market-base, with a match played in Philadelphia last weekend. That is to compete with the Guinness Pro14’s delve into the South African market, as well as Super Rugby’s cross-hemisphere reach.
All the competitions wish to showcase the product, and adapting to new laws is one way to make the game more spectator-friendly.
Travelling the Atlantic
Promoting the game in one of the fastest but most competitive emerging markets is a tantalising task for the Aviva Premiership board. Establishing a US fan-base could potentially provide a huge revenue stream by appealing to US fans’ love of a contact sport.
Rugby League wasted no time in grabbing this opportunity and kicked off their season by introducing a cross-Atlantic element to League 1. The emergence of a cash-rich new franchise, the Toronto Wolfpack, has introduced a wave of new possibilities.
North America have the financial clout, and the Canadian’s immediate promotion to the English League Championship will be one that Union’s power brokers will need to keep an eye on.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) September 12, 2017
A second expedition by the Aviva Premiership into the American mainstream TV market came at the weekend as Saracens overcame the Newcastle Falcons 29 – 7. Whilst the attendance at the ground wasn’t the sell-out that many had hoped for, there were still plenty of positives to take from the week.
Fan engagement, coaching sessions and running kid camps have all set the groundwork for the game to grow state-side. With a guarantee to play at least one regular season game over the next three seasons, the hope is to expand the sports appeal on the Eastern seaboard.
Aviva Premiership New Laws Make the Visual a Priority
Guaranteeing fans witness a fast, exciting game that sees plenty action is the key to Rugby’s plans for expanding the game. Doing this, without losing the ‘essence’ of what makes Rugby Union a great game, is a delicate balance.
With this in mind, World Rugby has developed six new laws to assist the flow of the game. The Aviva Premiership’s new laws came into effect at the start of this season [August]. A trial which will then be in use by the Southern Hemisphere from January 2018.
With much emphasis on cleaning up the ruck area, to make it an easier game to follow. And after three rounds of the Aviva Premiership, fans are starting to see what the changes will look like.
All Power to the Attack
The major breakdown-area rule change has swung the advantage toward the side with the ball going into contact;
Law 15.4 (c)
The tackler must get up before playing the ball and then can only play from their own side of the tackle “gate”.
A ruck commences when at least one player is on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground (tackled player, tackler). At this point the offside lines are created.
A player must not kick the ball out of a ruck. The player can only hook it in a backwards motion.
The big difference when watching the opening games so far in 2017 has been the increased speed of the breakdown. The onus is now on the ruck to form quickly, and the scrum-half to get the ball out quickly.
What a weekend of @premrugby
So many points getting scored and the speed of ball from breakdown has improved with the new ruck laws.
— Gareth Hill (@gforce_14) September 4, 2017
An area of contention during the Six Nations, the ruck and who is the tackler, has also been simplified. Fans will recall Italy employing a strange tactic of the ‘zero ruck’ tactic. It is now fine-tuned, so that the player on the ground in the on-side line, but if no tackler is present, a player standing over the ball is free to pick up the ball and move forward.
Scrum Time Changes
Forwards would say that the scrum is the fulcrum of the game. The backs would say it’s an ‘unnecessary delay’. Whatever your opinion, this set piece area needed tidying up.
Law 20.5 & 20.5 (d) 5
No signal from referee. The scrum-half must throw the ball in straight, but is allowed to align their shoulder on the middle line of the scrum, therefore allowing them to stand a shoulder width towards their own side of the middle line.
Law 20.9 (b)
The number eight shall be allowed to pick the ball from the feet of the second-rows.
Once the ball touches the ground in the tunnel, any front-row player may use either foot to try to win possession of the ball.
Scrums have appeared (subjectively at least) faster with less resets. The sight of the scrum-half throwing the ball into the second-row’s feet seems to have disappeared from the game–which is a bonus.
Another improvement is the ability of the number eight or scrum-half, to be able to pick the ball out from the second-row’s feet, getting the game going much quicker.
While these subtle changes may seem simple, after years of game-play, it will take time for players–and viewers–to adapt. But these Aviva Premiership new laws appear to have the buy-in of the players, spectators and officials. And that is key.
A Referees Viewpoint
LWOR’s resident referee Scott MacLean views the changes as largely positive. His sees that the scrum changes should see more completions, ending the stalemates where the ball simply sits and cannot be hooked, and finally acknowledge that the team that doesn’t offend should have some advantage in getting the ball back.
In his view, the tackle changes are more about simplifying the game for officials and fans, ending confusion as to when offside lines are formed; something that was best seen in the contentious England v Italy Six Nations match earlier this year. By also requiring tacklers to get up and back through the gate to play the ball, it should make the picture at the breakdown clearer as well.
Finally the prohibition on players being able to kick the ball out of a ruck should also lead to more clean ball and better platforms to launch attacks from in open play.
A Better Viewing Experience?
The true test will come once winter sets in and rain causes heavy pitches, handling becomes slippery and kicking out of hand is more popular. And even if that is the game many fans were brought up on, the play today has changed; eg the new law trials.
New season excitement should always be tempered, although a lightning fast opening weekend with 50 tries scored in one round, would have been a terrific viewing experience. And while that has drawn in an audience, defences will get better as the season goes on.
With the players buy-in, it has seen a positive mindset to begin with. So as the season carries on, the grey area of interpretation will deepen but, right now the signs are looking positive.
An improved visual experience is proof that the English premier competition is still the leading product. With expansion at the heart of an improved game, it is something to really get excited about. A better spectator experience is seeing those new fans attend matches and to spread the word.
To generate that interest, the Aviva needs to have more tries, big hits and a super-competitive league… even then our American cousins couldn’t turn their nose up at this.
“Main photo credit”
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