The Ever-So-Slight Americanization of Rugby – A Brief Examination of PRO Rugby’s Law Amendments

An article from The Guardian this past Monday revealed that PRO Rugby plans to utilize two amendments to the laws of the game: limited scrum resets and sudden death overtime rather to decide games that would typically end in draws. The reaction to these changes was mostly aimed at the principle of the matter rather than the benefits and detriments of these laws. But as important as it is to note the impact these changes will have off the pitch, let’s first look at how they will affect the game played on it.

The introduction of limited scrum resets is the new law that you won’t hear anyone talking about because it’s a no-brainer. Just search for “scrum resets” on Google and you will find a myriad of articles about how scrum resets are terrible for the game. It isn’t clear what this limit is or what the penalties are exactly, but anything that can effectively promote better technique in the scrum is a positive. Perhaps making the game more viewer-friendly was the catalyst, but something that you won’t find any rugby fan complaining about.

The more controversial of the two changes is the introduction of sudden death overtime during the regular season in place of allowing matches to end in a draw. This isn’t an entirely new concept, as we already see sudden death in knockout competitions. Just a week ago, a phenomenal match between Fiji and the United States at the Vancouver Sevens ended in this way. You can argue that a draw would have been a just result had the match taken place during the group stage, but the end of that match had fans on the edge of their seats like few others in this year’s series.

Looking at it from a practical standpoint, this law is unlikely to make a huge impact when you consider that draws are already rare. This could affect the way that close matches finish, as a team may be more willing to play in a fashion that would be “settling for a draw” in a typical competition if that team believes their odds of winning improve by taking the match to extra time. But for the most part you will still see teams taking every chance that they get to win in regulation. Limiting results to wins and losses also clears up the table, going the opposite direction of the increasingly convoluted bonus points systems you see elsewhere. Given how much flak America takes for using the imperial system over the metric, I think we can pride ourselves in using the simpler winning percentage over a more complex points system.

What fans are concerned about is that this appears to be an attempt to “Americanize” the game for a wider audience, perhaps the beginning of a slippery slope towards more drastic changes. It’s well-known that many Americans consider “draw” a four-letter word and believe that sporting events are pointless without a more definite conclusion. But opponents of sudden death will recall the early years of Major League Soccer when they settled draws with hockey-style shootouts, a rule that alienated fans of the sport and failed to bring in new fans, and believe that PRO Rugby is making the same mistake. It’s safe to say that there is a substantial difference between the two situations.

In the case of MLS, they were trying to capitalize on the success of the World Cup but still found themselves in a climate where your typical American sports fan didn’t care for soccer. In a hail mary shot at attracting a broader fan base, they used a gimmicky and experimental rule to get rid of draws in a sport where that type of result is highly likely to reflect the true outcome of a game. They also had team names like the Dallas Burn and Kansas City Wiz and wore jerseys that make PRO Rugby’s kits look classy. The 90s were a strange time and soccer was simply trying to avoid becoming a niche sport in America. They’ve pulled a 180 since then, not only finding their niche but building 20,000 seat stadiums that fit snugly within that niche and taking on faux-European names and jerseys that we are already getting used to (other than Real Salt Lake, which will always be an awful name). Restoring draws was one of the first steps in that direction.

For PRO Rugby, this law amendment is considerably more subtle in a sport that’s much more open to change. Just look around the world of rugby today and you’ll find more extreme experiments in the World Rugby Pacific Challenge, where they are currently testing out six-point tries and two-point penalties, and Varsity Rugby in South Africa, who is testing out a system where tries can be worth up to nine points. PRO Rugby’s laws may be slightly Americanized, but rugby is also a sport that’s a little more receptive to such a thing. A decade from now when fans in New Zealand watch a regular season Super Rugby match go to overtime, they won’t be wondering how their game got Americanized. Instead, they will simply keep cheering on their teams.

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