When SANZAR introduced a number of Experimental Law Variations for the 2008 season, supporters were led to believe they would make rugby faster and more exciting to watch.
“We’re introducing the new laws to Super 14 to super-charge Super rugby,” ARU deputy CEO Matt Carroll gushed at the time.
“The SANZAR nations have always been at the forefront of the game and yet again SANZAR is to lead the world.”
Among the changes implemented was that backlines had to stand five metres back from the scrum and that quick throw-ins to lineouts were allowed to go backwards. All offences except offside and foul play were to be punished by a free kick rather than a penalty.
The main aim of the changes was to keep the ball in play longer with fewer stoppages and more running rugby, thereby creating a faster and more exciting style of play.
After two seasons of the anticipated adrenalin-charged rugby, has the promise been fulfilled?
It would be reasonable to expect that fast, exciting games would result in higher points scored and a greater number of tries. Let’s look at the evidence from the last ten seasons of Super rugby.
Firstly we have average points scored and average number of tries (in brackets) for teams which finished in the Top Four:
2000 31.9 (3.5)
2001 28.5 (2.9)
2002 34.3 (4.0)
2003 32.6 (4.2)
2004 29.8 (3.6)
2005 31.0 (3.8)
2006 28.0 (3.2)
2007 28.5 (3.3)
2008 23.2 (3.0)
2009 24.8 (3.0)
Looking at average points scored, we have the apparently perverse result that the application of the ELVs has resulted in significantly lower scorelines for the top teams.
The data on average number of tries is even more instructive. The high-water mark was reached in 2003 with an average of 4.2 tries being scored per team, after which it declined appreciably. 2006 is generally recognised as the year when defensive patterns became dominant. But there has been a further decline in the two ELV seasons.
The top teams are scoring fewer tries under the experimental laws.
The situation is quite different for the Bottom Four teams:
2000 22.6 (2.2)
2001 24.6 (2.5)
2002 20.8 (2.3)
2003 23.7 (2.6)
2004 24.7 (3.0)
2005 18.9 (2.2)
2006 18.2 (1.9)
2007 17.4 (1.6)
2008 18.8 (2.3)
2009 19.6 (2.5)
Since 2004 there has been a definite decline in both points and tries scored, but the introduction of the ELVs has apparently yielded an increased ability for lesser teams to score tries.
A possible reason for this could be the experimental rules taking a lot of structure out of the game; thereby introducing a greater element of chance.
But for many aficionados the great attraction of rugby is its complexity relative to other codes and the expectation that teams that master its structural requirements are rewarded.
Let’s look at the percentage of their games in which both the Top Four and Bottom Four teams earned a four try bonus (Top Four first):
2000 45.5 15.9
2001 36.4 27.3
2002 52.3 15.9
2003 61.4 29.5
2004 45.5 36.4
2005 45.5 15.9
2006 40.4 11.5
2007 40.4 7.7
2008 36.5 11.5
2009 34.6 26.9
Again it appears that Top Four teams have a lower propensity to earn a try-scoring bonus under the experimental laws. Although the pattern is less clear, it would seem that Bottom Four teams may be benefiting from the ELVs in terms of earning these bonuses.
A tentative conclusion is that rather than leading to more exciting rugby as measured by number of points and tries scored, the experimental laws have reduced the scoring margins between good and bad teams.
For those who prefer to watch close games this could be seen as increasing excitement. For the rest of us this is not necessarily a desirable outcome.
Re-printed with the permission of Bruce Ross