Proposed COVID-19 rule changes by World Rugby could improve the sport

TORONTO — Proposed law amendments to the game of rugby to reduce the COVID-19 transmission risk could improve the sport, according to top Canadian rugby officials.

World Rugby says the rule changes are optional to trial, given the "wide variation in the presentation and management of COVID-19 across nations."

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But Canada seems interested, at first blush.

"Anything that improves the safety of our game, I think we have to embrace," said Paul Hunter, Rugby Canada's director of national development.

The game is currently on hold in Canada because of the pandemic.

The trial amendments provide limits to scrum options, reinforcing safe tackle rules, speeding up rucks and restricting maul movements.

World Rugby says the amendments could reduce scrum contact exposure by more than 30 per cent, reduce contact exposure at the ruck by up to 25 per cent and reduce maul contact exposure by at least 50 per cent.

Scrum resets, which World Rugby says happen 3.5 times on average per game, are being dispensed with when no infringement occurs. Instead, the team that put the ball into the original scrum will get a free kick.

There will be no scrum option for a penalty or free kick, and there will be a goal-line dropout when an attacker is held up in-goal.

"We need to speed up the game. We need less scrums," said Canada coach Kingsley Jones, a former Wales captain and forward. "It is an issue in the game."

"Scrums are a beautiful things and very integral to rugby," he added. "But you've only got to go back 20 years to see the difference in how quickly a scrum is formed and the ball is played away compared to now."

Jones says it can take 45 seconds to a minute in the modern game between the referee calling for a scrum, and the teams engaging. Add another 30 seconds if the scrum has to be reset.

"It all adds up," he said.

Jones says props and second rows average 13.4 minutes per 80-minute game locked in a scrum, with scrums resets accounting for almost four minutes of that time.

"COVID aside, I think these are positive proposals," said Jones.

The proposed changes will be first reviewed by Rugby Canada's law variations working group.

"We'll look to review them and see what would they do to our game — would they make our game more enjoyable, safer, more appealing, keep people in, maybe even introduce people to the game," said Hunter.

The steering committee, which is chaired by Nathan Abdelnour, manager of match official development at Rugby Canada, will also ponder whether particular ages or stages of competition would benefit from such changes.

He cited one proposed change for hookers, mandating that they use a "brake foot" to aid scrum stability, as a safety improvement.

"And if they're making the game more enjoyable, I would also agree with that," he added.

Hunter argues that the pace of the sevens game, where the ball is rarely on the ground, appeals to fans. So reducing time at the breakdown is a plus, accelerating the game and resulting in the ball moving more.

Rugby Canada currently has a gradual introduction to the game starting with a non-contact version for kids. Contact is introduced at the under-11 stage, with limits on the number of players who can enter a ruck.

Rucks, tackles, maul and jumping and lifting at the lineout are seen as increased risk areas that are introduced gradually.

The group, which has influence over everything from minor rugby to the senior level in Canada, reviews law variations annually.

At the international level, such law changes are often trialed in specific competitions.

New Zealand, which has managed to limit COVID-19, says a domestic Super Rugby tournament set to begin June 13 will be played under traditional laws.

World Rugby has also put forward a package of hygiene measures, such as regular ball sanitization and the "prevention of spitting and nose clearance" during matches.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2020.

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Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

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