When the Twenty20 ("T20") concept was first proposed by cricket executives in 2002, as a means to freshen up the traditional game and boost viewing figures, it was met with a mixed response. However, almost 20 years on, T20 has revolutionised the game, dramatically boosting exposure to the game, both domestically and overseas.
By way of example, over a dozen domestic T20 competitions are contested globally, including in traditionally weaker cricket-playing nations such as Canada and Hong Kong. At the other end of the scale, the most popular T20 competition in 2019 – the Indian Premier League – attracted 462 million viewers in India alone.
In a similar attempt to attract new fans, rugby's global governing body, World Rugby, has approved the radical 'RugbyX' format. Fiji's former Olympic gold medal-winning sevens coach Ben Ryan, who has masterminded this new format, argues:
"RugbyX takes a game we all love and makes it faster, simpler, more accessible. I honestly believe it'll change the way we enjoy rugby forever."
So what can we expect from this new version of the game?
World Rugby sets out the following rules, which are "designed to encourage fast, simple and skilful gameplay whilst retaining the game's core fundamentals":
- Matches will take place over 10 minutes with no half-time. Full contact rugby on a half-sized pitch
- Five players per side plus seven rolling substitutes
- Quick throws replace line outs
- No touch kicking – tap penalties/free kicks
- Kick-offs replaced by tap restarts on 5m line
- Kicking allowed up to a maximum height of 10m, to be monitored by Sportable ball tracking technology.
Also of note is the fact that RugbyX will be played indoors. Indeed, the inaugural RugbyX tournament launches at the O2 Arena on 29 October.
However, arguably the most interesting rule explains how tied games will be decided by a one-on-one contest. World Rugby envisages that the "‘one on one’ will see one attacking player from Team A receive the ball 30m from the opposition goal line, with one defender from Team B on his/her defensive 5m line. If Team A scores, and Team B fails to score, Team A wins the match and vice versa."
It will be fascinating to see whether this rule is well-received and accepted like penalty shoot-outs in field and ice hockey, or whether it is considered a failed gimmick, such as the penalty format formerly favoured by the MLS in the 1990s.
Next month's tournament will feature both men's and women's teams, and the confirmed teams include USA Rugby, France Rugby, Argentina Rugby and the Barbarians FC, with the latter two not including women. Given the format's similarities with Rugby Sevens ("Sevens"), it is expected that these teams will mostly be filled by existing Sevens players.
Looking ahead, World Rugby has planned five more tournaments around the globe in 2020, and it is hoped that notable absentees New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Fiji will participate.
Fan engagement going forwards
Detailed market research commissioned by World Rugby last year shows that the global rugby fanbase has increased by 24% since 2013, the average fan age has been decreasing, and short-form content has proven especially effective in attracting younger fans.
According to the research commissioned by World Rugby, Sevens has been incredibly successful in converting new fans, "with its high-action, short, easy-to-understand, made for social media format resonating with younger casual sports fans in particular, generating record video views and engagement rates". World Rugby will no doubt be hoping that the nature of RugbyX allows it to pick up on this momentum and run with it.
Moreover, World Rugby CEO Brett Gosmer notes that the timing of this tournament only a few days before the Rugby World Cup Final in Japan "presents a great opportunity to capitalise on increasing global interest".
At this stage, the concept of RugbyX is not widely accepted. However, when T20 cricket was first announced, the cricket purists also objected – and in retrospect, T20 cricket has had an enormous impact on the game, not only in terms of raising awareness but also in terms of improving players' technical skills. Time will tell if RugbyX will be looked upon as more than just a gimmick – but if it broadens participation and sparks interest, surely it will have been worth a try?
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