50:22 – Does rugby union need another law change?

Bill Beaumont
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 04: Sir Bill Beaumont, World Rugby Chairman speaking during the 2021 Rugby World Cup Launch Event at Eden Park on February 04, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Rugby union appears to have a constant desire to enact a law change to tinker with the game. Some make sense, such as the stricter enforcement of high tackle regulations which clearly have made the game safer. As are moves to enforce the laws surrounding ruck entry as World Rugby announced at the end of March.

However, the new 50:22 law, that is set to be trialled in various competitions across the world, smacks of tinkering rather than problem-solving. David Challis has a look at the new law proposal and its potential impacts within the game but also at its ability to appeal to a wider audience.
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What is the 50:22 law?

The proposed 50:22 law will act in a very similar way to the 40:20 rule in rugby league. If a player kicks the ball from inside his or her half and it bounces into touch within the opposition 22 then their team is awarded the line out.

A fairly simple law in practice although it will take some refereeing and enforcement especially at lower levels. In games with no assistant referees, it suddenly becomes another thing for an already overwhelmed referee to deal with.

The main idea behind the law is to reduce the number of players in the front line of defence. In order to prevent teams from successfully pulling off a 50:22 more players will have to be positioned in the backfield. As a result, more space should be available in the front line for teams to attack.

In theory, this also adds another tactical dimension to the game. The value of a great tactical kicker or a ground covering full-back suddenly increases. In a game that is increasingly governed by size and power the thought is that this should increase the value skill and tactical nous.

The logic here is strong and in principle there is nothing to dislike in this law. It promotes tactical skill and attacking rugby and in theory should speed up the game creating a better spectacle for fans.

Is rugby too complex?

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The issue comes when you think of the complexity of the sport. Rugby union’s law book is currently 146 pages long. Rugby league’s is just 64. For people that are already fans of union, one law change will not harm their understanding of the game. However, the overriding goal should be to bring more people into the sport and this law could be a step in the wrong direction.

Imagine explaining the laws of rugby to someone who knows nothing about the sport. After you have explained the basics of passing the ball backwards and tackling you can move onto rucks. Then it is scrums, then line outs. Next, the minutia surrounding 22 dropouts, 5m scrums, free kicks, and the ball going out on the full. Presuming you still have this person’s attention you can then spring the newly introduced 50:22 rule onto them.

Rugby in many ways is one of the most accessible sports out there, but in others, it is also intrinsically inaccessible. Adding more complexity to an already hard to understand the game for non-fans seems counter-productive.

If the desire is to move the focus away from power and size, then why not reduce the number of substitutions. Or speed up scrums to make the ball in play time increase thus driving down the size of players as cardiovascular demands augment.

There are other ways to create more space on the pitch that do not involve making rugby more complex. Although the 50:22 has the right goals at heart rugby union does not need another law change. Instead, focus on enforcing the laws we do have to make the product more appealing to the masses.

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