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November 21, 2010

What football could learn from rugby.

I thoroughly enjoyed watched England-Samoa at Twickenham yesterday. I’ve watched a lot of international rugby on TV over the years, and I’ve been to a few Plymouth Albion matches in the past, but this was the first big rugby match I’d attended. The game was an interesting one – England were gritty, patient, doughty even, but nowhere near the level they reached last week in beating Australia. Samoa were powerful and stubborn, but lacked invention and, by the end, fitness. Shontayne Hape was England’s man of the match, but Ben Foden was the most exciting player on the pitch. Rather than give a more detailed match report, when you can read far superior efforts elsewhere online, I’m keen to look at what football could learn from rugby.

Usage of video replays – This is the most obvious one. A couple of tries that seemed perfectly legitimate to the naked eye were disallowed yesterday after the video referee was able to analyse the footage and spot that small infringements had been committed – in one case, the ball had just slipped out the scorer’s hand, rather than being properly touched down, and in the other, the scorer had stepped on the touch-line before crossing over. Without video replays, both tries would have stood but neither were legal. Both could have affected the direction of the match, if not the final outcome.

Such a system could work just as well in football. In fact, there’s an argument that such a system would have an even greater impact on football, by nature of the fact that the sport is more typically low-scoring. In judging whether a player was offside, or if the ball crossed the line, decisions could be made very quickly and the sport’s legitimacy could be increased. Some argue that the delay in waiting for the decision would slow down the sport, but most evidence suggests otherwise. Not only can judgements be made near-instantly anyway, but the delay probably wouldn’t be any longer than the time it currently takes for the ‘victimised’ team to argue with the referee. What’s more, evidence from rugby, as well as cricket and tennis, is that supporters enjoy the tense build-up to the video referee’s decision. It becomes part of the drama, not an interruption to it.

Better conflict resolution – The way that fights are dealt with in football should be looked at. Yesterday, there was a bit of a fight between Ben Youngs and one of the Samoans. A couple of punches were thrown and they ended up wrestling on the floor. In football, that would have resulted in at least one red card, probably ruining the match as a spectacle. Instead, the referee calmly spoke to them both, got them to shake hands and that was the end of it. Of course, poor behaviour in sport should be frowned upon – particularly when sportsmen are many kids’ idols – but surely it could be dealt with in a way that doesn’t directly impact on the viewers’ enjoyment. This ties in with the next point.

Fewer yellow cards – In what was a full-blooded affair, in which the Samoans in particular seemed keener on destruction than creativity, it is quite something that there wasn’t a single yellow card in yesterday’s match. The referee just let the play flow, where possible, and acknowledged a lack of intent when fouls were committed.

Shorter half-time – Half-time is dull. Fans have nothing to do (because no-one in their right mind braves the kilometre-long queue for a pie), and TV pundits have to find filler and puffery until the players come back out. So why not shorten it? Rugby’s half-time is only ten minutes and seems, frankly, ample time for the players to get a drink and a bit of tactical advice. Football’s fifteen minutes is just unnecessary. Implementing this change would also result in less Gareth Southgate on TV, which could only be a good thing.

Unsegregated fans – I understand the reason that fans are segregated in football, and I know that it’ll never be changed, but mixing fans together adds something to a sporting atmosphere. It creates a sense that everyone’s there for the quality sport, rather than out of a hatred for the opposition. When Samoa scored their try yesterday, a bloke near us jumped up and waved a big Samoan flag. Of course, he got jeered, but to laughter. He sat back down and all was well. One can only imagine what would happen if a bloke stood up and waved a Germany flag amongst England fans at Wembley.

More beer – A significant amount of beer was drunk by spectators before and during the match, and hundreds of people frequented the Scrum Bar in the East Stand for a couple of hours after the match, with not a bit of violence. Again, I understand – stereotypically at least – that football fans’ propensity to violence is apparently greater than that of most other sports’ fans, but to be punished by reduced¬†availability¬†of beer is nothing short of a travesty.

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