Scrum re-sets, too many substitutions, TMO replays make watching rugby a challenge

Tony Smith is also a Stuff sports reporter

OPINION: Remember the famous line in Kevin Costner’s 1989 movie, Field of Dreams?

Costner’s character Ray Kinsella cocked an ear to hear a ghostly voice say, “If you build it, he will come.”

So they carved a ball field into a corner of a cornfield. Out stepped some celestial baseball greats, led by Shoeless Joe Jackson, to play catch with Ray and his dear, departed dad.

Well, they’re about to build a new $ 533 million multi-use arena in Christchurch, which will become a new home for the Crusaders, arguably the best ‘club’ team in world rugby.

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But, “will he [and she] come? ” The rugby punters of Canterbury, that is.

Well, the 11-time Super Rugby champions might have a shot at filling many of the 30,000 seats at the new arena if they can regularly reproduce matches of the quality against the Blues on Friday night,

The Blues’ first victory in Christchurch for 18 years was attacking rugby at its best, a game where both teams thirsted to run the ball in a contest refreshingly light on scrum re-sets, box kicks, rolling mauls and player cynicism, David Havili’s yellow card offense apart.

A rolling maul lift Quinten Strange from the Crusaders off his feet at left, during the round seven Super Rugby Pacific match between the Crusaders and the Highlanders.

Peter Meecham / Getty Images

A rolling maul lift Quinten Strange from the Crusaders off his feet at left, during the round seven Super Rugby Pacific match between the Crusaders and the Highlanders.

It was the shot in the arm rugby union sorely needed after some staid, stolid fare for far too long in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

Hopefully this game – played before a near-capacity crowd – will set a new template because till now there have been real fears New Zealand rugby venue audiences have peaked, for anything outside of a tier-one All Blacks test?

A lot of heat has gone on this week about the visual excellence that is the rolling maul. Ex-All Blacks halfback Justin Marshall reckons they’re killing the game.

Referee Nigel Owens (C), his assistant and Ireland players watch a TMO decision replayed on the stadium TV screen during the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks.

Craig Mercer / MB Media / via Getty Images

Referee Nigel Owens (C), his assistant and Ireland players watch a TMO decision replayed on the stadium TV screen during the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks.

There is nothing more mind-numbingly boring in sports than watching a barely-moving mass of beefy blokes inching upfield.

But, while mauls may appal there are many reasons why rugby now suffers as a spectacle compared to, say, NRL rugby league and top-level football.

TMO interventions, too many substitutions and blatant gamesmanship all extend the ‘action’ and send formerly fanatical fans scurrying for the channel switch button on their Sky remotes.

Ben Youngs (R) replaces England halfback Harry Randall in a Six Nations game this year.

David Rogers / Getty Images

Ben Youngs (R) replaces England halfback Harry Randall in a Six Nations game this year.

Referees today almost seem risk averse – too nervous to make a decision on anything other than a clearcut try, too willing to kick it upstairs.

Technological interventions are here to stay in all sports, but can’t there be a statutory limit on the number of camera angles provided to the IOM? Do we really need more retakes than a Peter Jackson movie epic?

TMOs shouldn’t be allowed to go back several plays to incidents occurring in the backfield in order to rule out a try – unless blatant thuggery was detected. If the refereeing team doesn’t see it in real-time, too bad. Move on.

World Rugby also needs to act on the risible rate and timing of substitutions.

Perhaps it’s time to ban tactical substitutions until the final quarter.

Does it really add anything to rugby to have their entire front rows replaced five minutes after their halftime orange? Is a professional prop so fatigued that they need a breather after 45 minutes?

Do we need eight subs? Is it absolutely essential to have specialist looseheads and tightheads on the bench? What happened to the versatile bookend, like Richard Loe, capable of playing both sides? Or the tight-loosie able to play flanker and lock.

Wouldn’t there be more action if there were fewer subs and more players became fatigued?

Ulster hooker Declan Moore (R) gets the lineout call from teammate Andrew Warwick during a United Rugby Championship game against Connacht.

Brendan Moran / Sportsfile / Getty Images

Ulster hooker Declan Moore (R) gets the lineout call from teammate Andrew Warwick during a United Rugby Championship game against Connacht.

Then there are the dreaded scrum re-sets, a bigger TV turnoff than rolling mauls.

Almost every scrum these days results in one side trying to milk an advantage rather than looking to re-start quickly and launch an attack.

The most galling re-sets are the ones where the ball is all but out, but the referee inside fit to order another set piece when fans just want to see the ball spread.

Can’t referees be empowered to issue yellow cards to recidivist re-set malefactors? Could they not award a free-kick at the second re-set and march the offenders back 10 meters?

Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea looks to break a tackle against the Crusaders.

Elias Rodriguez / Photosport

Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea looks to break a tackle against the Crusaders.

Why are players – generally slow-coach props – allowed to trot up the hooker to impart a lineout call. It’s not like the noise level in deathly quiet New Zealand stadiums means the lineout thrower can’t hear a shout, even through a cauliflowered ear. Why not a baseball-style hand signal?

Last week we had the ridiculous sight of Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea trotting towards the sideline to hear a water carrier’s prompt about whether to take a penalty shot for a potential draw with the Crusaders, or kick for touch to set up a rolling maul in a bid to win.

Is the game now so programmed that skippers can’t make their own calls? Could you imagine Sam Whitelock or Richie McCaw being so accepting of sideline ‘advice’? Referee Brendon Pickerill should have told Savea to make his own call.

These may be minor irritants, but they all add up.

If rugby wants to truly become a global game it must become more attractive to new markets. Would the present product appeal to general sports fans in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America?

The Crusaders-Blues game must become the rule rather than the exception. Until now, sitting through a Super Rugby game then switching to an NRL telecast has proved a sobering experience. The rugby codes are chalk-and-cheese in terms of entertainment and ball-in-play action.

So, when rugby union’s biggest brains meet to work on ways to make it more of a joy to watch, Friday’s thriller should be required viewing.

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