Rob Baxter: World Rugby’s new law changes are madness – leave the game alone

Exeter’s director of rugby, Rob Baxter, has a hit at World Rugby – PA/Andrew Matthews

Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, has criticized World Rugby’s proposal for further legal changes to attract new fans as ‘madness’.

Last month, the game’s governing body announced a five-step plan to speed up the game with a series of legal changes – such as 20-minute red cards and the abolition of a scrum option on a free kick and the “Dupont” offside law. – which will be voted on by the World Rugby board in May. Phase four of the plans will also see a specialist working group set up to examine the results of community tackle height testing across 11 unions and their “suitability for elite rugby”.

“We are trying to grow the game and there is no sport in the world that is trying to grow by confusing new supporters every 12 months,” Baxter said.

“We have to stop changing the laws. Three or four years ago the game was fine, and we didn’t have to change it then. 90 percent of what we do when changing the law is redoing things that were created by other changes in the law. It’s madness. We can’t talk about growing the game… you grow the game by introducing new players and people to it, but we confuse new people who come to the game every year by changing laws and interpretations. We avoid letting a good product happen.

The proposed de-powering of scrum and maul is a particular bugbear for BaxterThe proposed de-powering of scrum and maul is a particular bugbear for Baxter

The proposed de-powering of scrum and maul is a particular bugbear for Baxter – Shutterstock

“If they decide to change the law, they should decide to put a moratorium on not changing it anymore. Let’s settle down and move on. Now it feels like some of the great things they want to introduce are almost a counterbalance to what they brought in with the 50:22.

The third phase of World Rugby’s plans encourages individual unions and leagues to conduct closed processes against certain variations in the law “aimed at improving continuity of play”. They include a scrum and lineout shot clock, the ability to call a mark on a restart and forcing scrum halves to play the ball at mauls after one stoppage, not two. Baxter will be hoping they don’t reach the Premier League, with the elimination of scrum and maul a particular bugbear for the 53-year-old.

“I actually hope not,” Baxter added. ‘I actually hope we just leave things alone. They are [already] reinforcing two or three things to keep the game flowing – we don’t need to do more than that. Some things I see: No free kick option in scrum. We seem in love with the thought that eliminating the scrum and maul will create this game that everyone will want to come and watch. The more you eliminate the scrum and maul, the more you’re going to create a game that people won’t want to watch – because there won’t be any space.

‘I wish we would stop changing the laws, it makes me feel stupid’

“If there’s no free kick in a scrum, as soon as the scrum hits the ground or whatever, the back row will be in the back row… there’s going to be so many things that people haven’t thought of yet, just such as disabling the maul. The best way to create space on a rugby field is to turn on the maul. When people say, ‘You can’t stop a maul,’ you can always stop a maul. You simply have to deploy as many or more people than the opposition. This is how you stop it. People don’t want to do it because it leaves room in which tries can be scored. But that’s the whole point! So keep the maul strong so teams have to connect bodies to it.

“Anyone who watched the Gloucester-Leicester game, the Leicester maul, when he won penalties and got a five-yard lead, it kept him or her in the game. But if you look at it, Gloucester don’t use any players! There’s one where they only put four players in. Well, put more in there. There is nothing wrong with what is happening there, but Gloucester should use more players. And if Leicester recognized that and played somewhere else and scored a try, everyone would turn around and say, ‘Great try.’ But they are both part of the same thing, one creates the other. Anyway, that ends my rant. I just wish we would stop changing the laws, it makes me feel stupid.”

Baxter’s arguments are fair and valid – except for one important point

‘Rant over’ was how Rob Baxter chose to end his monologue after spending several minutes going through World Rugby’s latest set of law variations. Normally that’s a phrase reserved for closing hot takes; monologues that are full of heart and soul, but that can deviate slightly from reality and rationality.

Not in Baxter’s case. For the most part, the words of Exeter’s director of rugby could not be disputed. Baxter is right when he says that rugby is the only sport in the world that changes every twelve months, and then wonders why new fans choose to spend their time watching other sports. Baxter is also right when he says that the rugby authorities have become obsessed with the idea that “eliminating the scrum and maul will create this game that everyone wants to come and see”. The reverse is true, he adds: “The more you eliminate the scrum and maul, the more you create a game that people enjoy. not will want to watch.”

The scrum and maul are not perfect at the moment, but it makes no sense to reduce their role in rugby matches. As Baxter emphasizes, it is these set pieces that create space elsewhere. Rugby is a complicated ecosystem with many moving parts and World Rugby seems determined to make the sport a standout; the equivalent of eating only desserts when dining out. The joy of rugby, like most things, lies in the combination of brutality and beauty. World Rugby only seems to want beauty.

The only disagreement I have with Baxter is his claim that rugby did not need any legislative changes at all. As I have written extensively in these pages, there are several small adjustments the authorities could have made that would have improved the sport without alienating fans and changing its structure. The abolition of the “Dupont” offside rule should be seen as nothing but positive; so too is the acceleration of the ‘use it’ call at the back of the rucks. These are not changes in the law, but merely accentuations, and they are already having a material impact. Speeding up the scrum and lineout while maintaining the principles of the sport is the next goal, but after the scenes in the Stoop last Saturday I’m not sure more stopwatches are the answer.

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