Has modern rugby union lost its entertainment value?


At this time of year, for those of us in the southern hemisphere, rugby union is on pause – and we rely on coverage from the northern hemisphere for our fix.

Imagine this weekend being given the opportunity to watch a game of rugby on TV.

Now if I told you before the game that there would be 50 scrums, how would you feel?

As a point of reference, during the Autumn Test series this year (involving Australia, England, South Africa, Wales, New Zealand and Ireland) there were on average 11 scrums per match. And each scrum required an average of 65 seconds from stoppage to feed.

Still keen?

What if I then told you that in addition to the 50 scrums, you would be able to enjoy 54 lineouts?

Again, using the Autumn series as a reference there were, on average, 27 lineouts requiring an average of 25 seconds from ball in touch to throw-in.


Given our code’s penchant for technical penalties and free kicks – especially from set pieces – if I was to tell you that there would be 17 penalties awarded during the match and that a fair few of those would result in a tap and run, would you be surprised? The Autumn series averaged 25 penalties and free kicks per test match.

And in among all of this, three tries would be scored.

While in the Autumn series we were treated to an average of five tries per match, each try and subsequent conversion attempt used up an average of 80 seconds of match time. The three tries you will witness will only require an average of 54 seconds.


Well, I was.

Was this a junior match?

Maybe a lower grade senior and inter-school clash?

The match I am referring to is the final and deciding test at Eden Park in 1971 between the All Blacks and the British Lions. A match referred to recently by Peter Darrow in his excellent “now versus then” fantasy play-off with the 2015 All Blacks.

When I found a full replay of the match on YouTube, I was both excited and apprehensive about watching it. After all this was the first Lions team to win a series in NZ.

My father, who played with and against Fergie McCormick in Fergie’s early Linwood years in the late 1950’s, had regaled me with the story of how Barry John effectively ended Fergie’s All Black career by kicking him off the park in the first test of the series. There were any number of legendary names in both sides on that day – what if the game failed to live up to expectations?

I can happily say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would strongly recommend you all have a look. The match, the contest and the commentary were all eye opening.

I was blown away with the scrums. As opposed to the slow ritual that is the modern scrum, the scrums in 1971 were almost always formed before poor old Sid and/or Gareth even had the ball.

From the instant the ref’s whistle blew, the scrums just seemed to materialise with players drawn together to form what seemed to become a living entity. The scrum contest began as soon as the two front rows introduced each other and continued for the entire 21 seconds that the scrums averaged.

Scrums were not static or stable, the half-backs frequently had to straighten the heaving mass of bodies in front of them before they could put the ball in.

Unlike the modern scrum, the outcome was also far from certain with hookers hooking, tightheads frequent, and ball won was frequently expelled from the melee often metres (yards) from the scrum itself. The 50 scrums were in fact a revelation and a joy to watch and highly entertaining. The contest was “on” the entire time.

The lineouts were similar.

Once again, they were formed organically and quickly once the ball went into touch. The forwards stood in a close and often straggly line with minimal gaps between themselves and their opposition.

The ball was lobbed in windmill style – usually by the wingers (those were the days!) – though the Lions used the more modern-day throw – possibly quite innovative at the time. Having the throw did not result in any certainty of regaining the ball.

Players had to jump. No lifting.

Lood de Jager of the Springboks competes in a line-out during The Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the South African Springboks at Adelaide Oval on August 27, 2022 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Do modern lineouts serve their purpose? (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Also again, the contest started from the moment with lineout formed and the ref seemingly only intervened to get a slight gap or to call not straight throws.

The rolling maul was nowhere to be seen (mercifully!) The average of 20 seconds for the lineouts did not seem like a pause in the contest (picture the town meetings prior to, choreographic ballet pre-throw, and legal obstruction of the inevitable rolling maul).

Time spent on penalties averaged 24 seconds – compared to 37 seconds in the Autumn series. No time spent waiting for tees… kickers had to make their own hole or mound.

Laurie Mains could be seen doing a beautiful pirouette as he dug his heel into the hallowed turf creating a hole to place the ball it. Laurie was – like Fergie and Don Clarke before them – a traditional toe poker.

Barry John – using the new “round-the-corner” technique was all business with no hesitations, physical rituals or facial twitches. And despite the leather balls and damp weather, John’s magnificent kicking game – especially with the wind in the second half contributed hugely to keeping the All Blacks at bay in a game they had to win.

I read somewhere that Barry John played each minute of each Test… fatigue within a series and a match was very much alive in 1971 – just look at the faces in the lineouts towards the end of the game. The modern game manages fatigue very differently.

The commentary was also worth the price of admission.

There are the little nuggets like Sid Going throwing a “clever dummy”, the All Black’s winger constantly being referred to as “little” Ken Carrington, and the commentator speculating on the medicinal and healing properties of the water that the St John’s ambulance man poured over the injured.

It was marvelous, given the current health climate, to watch players from both teams and the referee swigging from the same water bottle during breaks.

It was also entertaining to hear the 1971 take on the physical confrontations both legal (rucking!!!) and illegal (plenty of biff on and off the ball) – both of which would today (with assistance from the AR’s and the TMO) result in the All Blacks having about seven players by the end of the game.

In an earlier article, I calculated that during the Autumn series, the average time lost over nine Test matches in 2022 was 59 percent of match time. In 1971, using the same criteria, time lost came at 57 percent.

I have also looked at what many refer to as “game of the century” played between the All Blacks and the Wallabies in Sydney in 2000. If one uses this match as a “gold standard”, stoppage time amounted to only 48 percent of the match (and for the record only 42% of the 1st half when seven tries were scored, and Andre Watson gave what I regard as a masterful display of refereeing – but that’s another story).

Jonah Lomu fends off Stephen Larkham

All Black Jonah Lomu fends off Wallaby Stephen Larkham. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

But for the reasons outlined above the perception I got from watching this 1971 gem of a game was that the contest hardly ever stopped.

The comparisons of sporting teams from past and present, and of the nature of game of rugby from past and present are both inevitable and thought provoking.

They draw many diverse and often heated/passionate opinions and arguments. Having reviewed this match from 1971 – admittedly with somewhat rose-coloured glasses – I was surprised at how much the game had to offer in terms of the spectacle and most importantly the contest.

In a sport that prides itself on having the contest for possession as a pillar of the game and having personally watched the game evolve over the last 50 years – I can see the merits of both sides of the argument. In 1971 the game was simpler in many ways, but the contest was arguably more prominent.

With a World Cup just around the corner – I wonder how a World Cup in 1971 would have panned out if it had been played.

Different? – Yes.

Less entertaining? – I don’t think so.

Better or worse?

Happy New Year to all.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login