As the eyes of the rugby world focus on Japan for the final stages of the Rugby World Cup, back in the UK, six teams will go head-to-head in what’s being billed as rugby’s answer to big-hitting, short-form cricket.
Across the globe, different sports are addressing the decreasing attention spans of fans by introducing condensed variants of their own sport — three-a-side basketball will be played for the first time at the 2020 Olympics and next summer will see the introduction of cricket’s all new 100-ball format in England.
RugbyX — something that 2003 World Cup winner Lawrence Dallaglio calls “rock-and-roll” rugby — will debut at the O2 Arena in London on October 29, four days before the World Cup final.
RugbyX games will comprise of two five-a-side teams playing full contact rugby on a half-sized pitch in matches of two 10-minute halves. For Ben Ryan, the rugby sevens coach who masterminded Fiji’s Olympic success in 2016, the new format has proved to be both an excellent way of introducing new participants to rugby whilst also keeping hold of players who may have considered giving up the sport.
“I saw this as a really good development tool for bringing players and supporters into the game,” Ryan, RugbyX’s technical director, told CNN.
“Coming through the game, I see that players might stop at schoolboy level and go ‘I don’t want to play 15-a-side, but I might play summer sevens with my mates or they might decide they don’t even want to do that but do want to play touch rugby, or they just don’t do it.
“I just think it’s another good tool to allow us to try to encourage people to stay in the game or to come into the game. We want that as a sport. Especially post-school, they maybe think about slowly leaving the game, when things aren’t necessarily as easy to do if they’re playing rugby.
“Also, I see it as a really useful tool to get kids starting to play the game because it’s a contact version that’s done very simply and is all around the basics of pass, tackle, catch and decision making.”
‘A lovely hors d’oeuvres‘
Rugby union already has two well-established formats of the game in 15-a-side and seven-a-side.
Dallagio admits that the often complex laws of the more traditional 15 vs. 15 format of the game may be enough to turn people away from rugby.
“Rugby can be quite complicated for those people watching the World Cup, there are a lot of laws to understand,” the former no. 8 told CNN.
However, due to the simplified laws and reduced number of players, “sevens” often provides many highlight-reel moments due to the open, fast-paced nature of the game.
Some of the other groundbreaking rules to be implemented in RugbyX include kicks not exceeding 10 meters in height, seven rolling substitutes, quick throws replacing lineouts, tap penalties and free kicks instead of touch kicking, tap restarts on the 5-meter line replacing kick-offs and three-person scrums, with hooking but no pushing.
And perhaps most excitingly, in an attempt to further appeal to fans, drawn matches will be decided by a one-on-one contest where a single attacker from one team will try and score past a single defender from the other.
However, Ryan insists that RugbyX has no plans to overshadow any other formats. “We have no intention of replacing sevens or 15s,” emphasized Ryan. “We see this as a lovely hors d’oeuvres that people can get involved in and we hope we can take all around the world.”
“In the UK, there are hardly any top teams that are city-based anymore. All the Premiership teams are not in the cities. There’s no team anymore in the City of London, Birmingham, Manchester — these big conurbations don’t have any rugby going on and we think we can change this.”
Ryan has a strong affinity to sevens rugby. The 48-year-old coached Fiji to its first ever medal in the history of the Olympics in 2016.
Sevens tournaments — like the world-renowned Hong Kong Sevens — take place over a whole weekend, and even a sevens purist like Ryan acknowledges this is probably too much for your average viewer, and is something RugbyX aims to address.
“I obviously love sevens, and I can sit there for two days probably and watch a tournament,” he said.
“RugbyX can provide that opportunity for people to come and not spend all day there, do other things beforehand and then come in almost like they would for a concert or a cinema or theater.
“You get it short, sharp. You get games that run one after another with international, world class stars, Olympic gold medalists, Commonwealth gold medalists, world champions and stars of the future.”
Profiting from high interest
With rugby’s biggest global event currently taking place in Japan, now might seem like a strange time to introduce a new format of the sport to fans.
But the fact that the eyes of the sporting world will be focused on the sport means this is the perfect platform from which to attract fans.
“We thought about the World Cup, we saw at the moment there’s this constant flurry of games every morning and that when it gets to the semifinals, everybody’s interest is piqued,” Ryan said.
“And then there’s a big gap between the third-place play-off and final. So, everybody’s into it and it’s half-term (school vacation) for most of the country.”
To expose RugbyX to as many people as possible, the competition will be shown on the free-to-air, terrestrial television station, ITV4, a prerequisite for the new format to ensure the lowest possible barrier to entry.
Former England internationals Dallaglio, Ugo Monye and James Haskell have all been recruited as ambassadors with the experienced TV host and rugby fan, Ben Shephard fronting the show.
“We want to make this available to everyone,” Ryan said. “There’s obviously a commercial element to this we see in the medium-to-long term of it being a successful financial venture, but we’re not going to make any money for a few years and any profits at the start.
“We want as many people to have a look at it which means we need to make sure that it’s really TV-friendly as well. We wanted to make sure that all the interactive bits were not on in the breaks in TV and we do things that are really short and sharp.”
So, if England, Ireland, the USA, France, Argentina and the Barbarians put on a show at the O2, what does the future hold for RugbyX?
“The future for me is, if we get everything 10 out of 10 (on October 29), and it works exactly as you could hope, that we end up having a global calendar for RugbyX that fits neatly inside the 15s and sevens that complements it,” Ryan admitted.
“And that we have it as a really easy, entry-level version of the sport, that we’ll be able to say in five years’ time, ‘look how many people have taken on the sport using RugbyX as their initial bridge,’ the first thing that they do, and then we’ll know that’s been a success.”