The Super14 is done and dusted and we’re about to move onto the staple food for most rugby fans, the international season.Much has been written on the ELVs and their effect on the Super14 but where to for the Experimental Law Variations from here?
And more importantly – were they a success?
This subject has been debated on online forums dedicated to the sport, around braais, around barbecues and probably even around sheep pens down on the south island of New Zealand.
I don’t really want to get into the merits of the various law variations except to point out the obvious, being that some have worked and some have not.
Amongst those I’ve chatted to on the subject there is a fairly unanimous opinion that most are in favour of all the new laws with the exception of the offside tackle rule, the downgrading of some offences to short arms and the changes at the ruck.
The general consensus is that these have not worked with special derision kept for the offside tackle law which has effectively outlawed cover defence and quite frankly, when watching on the tele and not having the benefit of seeing the entire pitch, is more than a little bit confusing.
But enough of the merits of the ELVs or the lack thereof. I’d prefer to discuss the merits of the process and how it is currently being implemented and how it will be managed and implemented going forward.
As a point of departure, I do believe this was a necessary undertaking by the IRB. The game has changed markedly since going professional with the players getting bigger, stronger and faster. Hence players cover ground faster and the space between backlines at scrum times, for example, is effectively a yard or two closer, simply because the players are able to cover the ground quicker and able to rush their opponents. Largely thanks to the introduction of rugby league defensive skills, defences are also better than ever.
To look at how much rugby has changed since going professional 12 odd years ago, one only has to compare the player sizes we had at the 2007 World Cup with those that played in the 1995 version. A figure being bandied about is that the backs, for example, are an average of 18 kgs heavier now than they were in 1995. That’s a huge difference and obviously the laws would need to change to reflect this or the sport would become staid and tries would be as uncommon as goals in football.
Those that argue there was nothing wrong with rugby to start with have a point to a certain degree but the fact is that the game has always been tweaked to keep it exciting and interesting. Tries went form 3 point to 4 points to 5 points. Players weren’t always allowed to lift in the line-out etc etc etc. The list is endless.
So yes, great initiative from the IRB and much needed, if only to evaluate and brain storm ways of keeping the game interesting. And they formed a great committee of very knowledgeable persons to come up with ideas to improve the game. The likes of Paddy o’Brien, Rod McQueen and our very own Ian McIntosh were all asked to drive the project forward. Great idea.
That is unfortunately where the positive input from the IRB ended. Things started innocuously enough and the ideas generated, while some were quite wacky, were generally quite good I felt. This is where the IRB made their first mistake though.
Instead of employing a person to drive the project forward and provide a sound leadership role and provide a platform for the smooth implementation of the ELVs across the globe, they went for somebody with rugby brains and little practicle experience in project management. And so it feel on ex-referee Paddy o’Brien to manage this process.
Now I need to tell you a bit about Paddy’s project management background. Perhaps I need to give you a bit of background on his career to aid the answering of this question. Paddy is currently 59 years old. When he was younger he played a bit of representative rugby and then by all accounts became a police officer for a number of years (17 to be exact) before turning his hand to full time professional refereeing. He did well and I enjoyed him as a referee, one of the most consistent in the world for a number of years.
So in answer to my earlier question, he has little to none project management experience.
Now let’s reflect on the build-up to the situation we currently find ourselves in.
The ELVs were thought out and trialled in various amateur competitions the world over. One set of ELVs was trialled in Scotland, another in Stellenbosch and yet another in the Australian domestic comp, that what it is/was. So far, so good.
Some ELVs were found not to work, others were found to work superbly.
The real test, however, was always going to be the realm of fully professional rugby. And thus the ELVs, to much debate, were trialled in the Super14, under the guise of it being a trial naturally.
Now this is where the real world project management skills come in and, being in the public eye, it was even more imperative that this was managed in a professional manner. And make no mistake, this is a project like any other, whether it be a software role-out or a construction project.
Now the whole idea of “trialling” something is to stress test it and to test whether the outcome matches your objectives. The test evaluates how it fared against these objections and a decision is then taken whether to keep the change, tweak the change or bin the change.
That’s a test environment in the professional world.
I do think they did a pretty good job up to, and including, the introduction of a selection of ELVs into the Super14.
My personal feeling at the time was they were trying too much too soon but that was a personal bias towards conservatism on my side. My initial opinions were that some of the changes would contaminate each other and we would not be able to evaluate each rule change on its own merits.
A simple example, off the top of my head, is that of the five metre scrum and the no-passing back into the 22. So a team that has the scrum feed just outside their own 22 and runs the ball off the back of scrum, down the backline and scores a try covering almost the full length of the field. Now is that because of the extra space afforded them because the defending side is 5 metres back or is it that they were forced to run the ball because they couldn’t pass it back into their own 22 to kick out on the full? Who knows. It probably doesn’t matter but the fact is that a more gradual implementation of changes would’ve allowed a more pragmatic analysis of the effects without any bias from the other rule changes.
The point being of course that the ball was in play 36 minutes on average in the 2008 S14 as opposed to the 33 minutes in 2007… 3 minutes. A landslide. The fact that those 180 seconds were mostly played just hoisting the ball in the air or playing 6 touch tackle rugby is not considered.
But I digress. I still feel the changes were for the best, even if they were a bit rushed.
This is where, in my opinion, the wheels came off this project and where a good, experienced project manager wouldn’t've let things slide. Some fatal errors were made at this point.
The first big problem was that they trialled these laws in the southern hemisphere and not in the northern hemisphere. Obvious accusations of conspiracy theories arose along with the usual north versus south tit for tat arguments. The fact that the northern hemisphere had more representatives on the board that recommend the changes was lost when John o’Neill, the self-appointed mouth-piece and proponent of the new laws, was allowed to mouth off in public and basically told the northern hemisphere they were silly, they were dinosaurs, they were this, they were that. Nobody shut him up.
O’Neill, bless him, seems to be one of those guys who likes to get up people’s noses. Actually he just sounds like an arrogant, tactless moron at times who has the elocution of a rabid dog.
It was never going to end well.
This is where the ELV project reached it’s critical mass. Trialled amongst the best rugby players in the world, it was make or break.
Thankfully I think it worked to a large degree. But surely this was only the trialling of the laws? What would surely follow is an evaluation of which Law Variations worked and which did not, with those that didn’t work being sent back to the drawing board or being binned completely?
Is that not the very definition of what they were trying to do, namely “trialling” these Experimental Law Variations?
Nope. Not to be apparently. After 172 games and about 14,000 minutes of game time surely they have enough information to make an informed decision about which laws are good and which are superfluous to requirements? Or so you would think.
Which leads us to the next question – have they evaluated the results and made decisions? You see, from my perspective, there are only two options.
Either they have not been able to reach a decision on the effectiveness of the various laws or they think all the laws work. Those are the only available explanations for the fact that no ELVs have yet been binned.
Now the first option truly boggles the mind. In this day and age you have techies that can analyse a game in a few hours and give you stats that come out of your ears. They would surely have had all the avaiable information a week after the Super14 finished. And virtual real time information available during the tournament. Were they sitting on their hands?
So the information is definitely freely available. So surely they can make a decision on which ELVs to drop or tweak?
That only leaves with option 2, being that they seem to think all the ELVs are fantastic and there is no need to refine or remove any of them. That’s slightly more disturbing to me, to be honest. It means they have no problem with problems generated by the off-side tackle law etc.
There is of course another option. Option 3 states that this was never a trial in the first place and these laws were all going to forced down our throats irrespective of the outcome.
After this long diatribe I am still yet to get to the point and for that I apologise and ask you, dear reader, to bare with me for a little while longer.
Now that the international season kicks off tomorrow another spanner was thrown in the works and its a direct result of one of the weaknesses I mentioned earlier in the article, being the fact that the ELVs were not trialled in the northern hemisphere amongst the sport’s elite players.
That means its back to old laws for SA’s games against Wales and Italy and then back to the ELVs for the TriNations.
This is still not such a big issue until you realise that Sanzar has now gone and included a few more ELVs for the TriNations. Don’t forget, these ELVs they are introducing have never been trialled before in a professional competition. Anywhere. Why would they do that? Is test rugby not the ultimate competition? Any sane person would surely wait until next year’s Super14 competition and trial the new ELVs there before introducing them to test rugby?
In my mind test rugby is simply not the place to experiment in. It’s the ultimate test in rugby and to start messing around with rule changes that have not been trialled elsewhere seems like lunacy to me.
Furthermore, we are very rapidly approaching the a situation where rules will need to be agreed before every single game. What is going to happen next year when yet more selectively chosen ELVs will be applied in the northern hemisphere?
There’s no guarantee that they will even trial the same ones that were trialled in the Super14!
It sort of reminds me of the situation we used to have when we played pool as a kid – with the question being asked before every game “Are we playing new rules or old rules. Or new new rules?” That went on for years and if I picked up a pool cue today I’d probably still need to ask the question.
Heaven forbid a similar situation develops where this drags on for years to come in a similar fashion.
All in all this was a great initiative from the IRB but a lack of leadership and some grave errors threaten the derail the whole shebang and cause confusion for seasons to come.
I really wish somebody would take this project by the collar and take the decisions that need taking.Tweet