Possession Rugby is on life support – and the stats from the World Cup prove it beyond doubt

“I’m not a fan of changing the rules because one team is dominating,” commented one Roarer last week.

It is a disappointing interpretation of the articles I have written over the past weeks opposing the Rugby played by Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks and Steve Borthwick’s England. It also misunderstands the recent comments made by identities such as Steve Hansen and Brian O’Driscoll regarding the game’s direction.

The CIA coined the term ‘Blowback’ seeking to describe the ‘unintended consequences’ and ‘unwanted side effects’ of its policies in Columbia, Afghanistan and Syria.

Put simply, ‘Blowback’ is what Rugby is suffering from today following the policy and rule changes that have been introduced to the game in the past 5-10 years.

Undeniably, the rules right now encourage teams not to possess the ball in test matches. That isn’t intentional or by design, at least I hope it isn’t.

But what evidence is there of this?

South Africa’s Handre Pollard kicks at goal against England. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Take these newly released, record shattering observations from Opta Stats regarding the games show piece, Rugby World Cup 2023.

England made 251 kicks in play over the course of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the most by any team in a single edition of the men’s competition since it began in 1987. That’s a lot of teams across a lot of years, around 200 sides by my count.

South Africa made 209 tackles, the most ever by a team in a men’s Rugby World Cup final, surpassing the 158 they made against England in 2019. About a 30% increase.

The Boks made 974 tackles overall during the World Cup, the most by any nation in any World Cup. Again, a massive sample size.

Those sides finished third and first respectively in 2023.

According to Planet Rugby “throughout all the knockout games …the team that played more with the ball ended up losing.”

Broadly speaking, at the highest level there is no advantage in a Rugby team possessing the ball. It is an ironic outcome given the Webb-Ellis trophy is named by a guy who picked the ball up and ran with it.

The Portuguese coach commented after the Test against Georgia that his players “are really generous, capable of playing the width of the pitch. The Portuguese championship has less structure but the speed and the width is great.”

The most entertaining side at the World Cup in my opinion, the nation that won hearts and minds, was Portugal. They played a beautiful style of possession based rugby that would be ineffective if implemented by Tier 1 nations.

Portugal’s Francisco Fernandes celebrates scoring against Fiji. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

It is more than fair to counter that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But we are all beholders aren’t we, and so different tastes should be catered for.

It was spine tingling seeing Owen Farrell send a bomb of a drop goal from way out over the cross bar in the Semi-Final against South Africa.

And for the avoidance of doubt, it was incredible watching Pieter Steph Du-Toit iron out poor old Jordie Barrett repeatedly in Paris. Just as it was a spectacle watching Kwagga Smith pinch the ball throughout the knockout stages.

But too many games in the World Cup, the majority of tests, were slugfests with no real attacking endeavour and marked by an obvious desire not to possess the ball.

In what many are describing as the ‘best executed horrible game plan’, England kicked away 93% of possession in its narrow semi final loss to the Springboks. I had to read that 93 times before I could believe my eyes!

But let’s be clear, England are easy targets. No other first tier nations covered themselves in glory when it came to keeping possession.

Even the French, once known for free flowing Rugby, were happy to play without the ball as well, kicking it away over 30 times per game on average, and ranking only fifth for carries (119.0 per game) as a result.

Interestingly, the Rugby World Cup official site went on to note that:

“The French keep the ball alive better than anyone else, averaging the most offloads (11.8) and the second-most line breaks (10.5), while the Springboks have conceded the joint-most turnovers (17.0) and have the worst positive outcomes of any team (60%), which translates to four out of every 10 possessions ending in error.”

South Africa’s Mbongeni Mbonambi. (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Eddie Jones might not be everyone’s favourite uncle at the moment but he’s right when he says “The game has always gone between contest and continuity. The balance we want is to be able to play both games. If the game goes too far to the contest, which is a brutality game, then it’s just one sort of game.”

So what to do?

The absolute priority is introducing fatigue to defences.

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Benches were originally increased from 7 to 8 in order to ensure the integrity of the scrum contest, not to facilitate an almost full replacement pack on the bench.

Extra loosies entering the game in the final 30 minutes only ensures the midfield is clogged and the game stays tight around the breakdown. This is backed up by the fact forwards now carry the ball more than backs and by the vastly increased tackling stats.

The concept of finishers must be dispensed with once and for all. Sides should be restricted to 4 changes in a match, 5 if a front row forward suffers injury.

Ensuring you have cover for a late injury or concussion will force coaching teams to be discerning with the changes they make.

South Africa’s Jean Kleyn (left) and Pieter-Steph Du Toit celebrate victory after the final whistle of the Rugby World Cup 2023 final. (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

In addition to the new laws which attempt to speed up the game and decrease the number of stoppages, set pieces must become a contest again.

If purists want scrums to be hard fought centre pieces, it follows laws should ensure the ball is fed straight forcing hookers to strike for it. Hookers shouldn’t be extra loose forwards with secondary ‘hooking’ skills.

Half backs should not be permitted to pass their front row. Number 8’s and attacking scrum halves should be unimpeded.

Similarly, the rules around the ruck, especially ‘ruck trains’, must be tightened to incentivise sides to play with speed.

Analysts generally accept that a fast ruck clearance is under 3 seconds. In the 2022 Six Nations, both Ireland and France cleared the majority of rucks within that timeframe.

Come the World Cup, not a single Quarter Finalist met that standard. Argentina were fast at about 3.5 seconds while Wales were slowest at around 5.5 seconds.

Like reducing replacements or improving the scrum contest, rapid ruck speed is about creating chances.

That in turn incentivised sides not just to keep the ball longer, but to do more with it.

We all want to see great defences matched against great attacks that have an even money chance.

We don’t permit bowlers to bowl 5 bouncers in an over in cricket. We don’t allow batsmen to escape fielding duties. Why should Rugby go along with the equivalent situation?

It isn’t about penalising one country or another.

The game needs balance. All aspects of Rugby need to be supported by the laws governing it. A level playing field for all styles and ‘DNA’s’ once existed and it can exist again.


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