LONDON, ENGLAND – It was certainly a fun evening Tuesday last at the O2 Arena in London, where the latest variant of the oval ball game, Rugby X, was introduced to an inquisitive public. But was it really rugby? And does that matter?
Rugby X is the brainchild of the highly respected and affable coach Ben Ryan, and delivered by TRM, a UK-based event company, the idea being to deliver a commercially viable indoor rugby experience within a 3 or 4 hour window. In short, it is a five-a-side format, no line-outs, uncontested scrums, rolling subs. played in one 10 minute period, with gladiatorial style 1 v 1 contests to determine extra-time winners. Toss in strobe lights, all the stadium music classics, a be-sequined MC and the estimable Sevens World Series regular Rob Vickerman on the mike, and there you have it. Rugby X, the bastard step-child of Arena Football and Touch Rugby.
So, firstly the positives. The 02 Arena was a magnificent venue and interestingly, is owned and operated by AEG. Their Rugby division, (headed by American rugby legend Dan Lyle), is becoming increasingly influential in all things American rugby, from the LA 7’s to their NBC connections.
The production quality generally was excellent, although the sound and visuals for post-game interviews on the big screen didn’t quite sync. There was also a decent crowd in attendance; around 4,000 for the first afternoon session and 10,000 or so for the evening session. This generated a pretty bouncy atmosphere. That is promise in itself on a midweek evening.
A further and mostly unconsidered benefit, is the extra cash it can put in the pockets of players and/or Unions. Historically underpaid 7’s players, while nervous about the format and the risk of injury immediately before the World Series opener in Dubai, were nevertheless grateful for the extra pounds, and if this additional remuneration keeps more of the top players in the abbreviated game, this is a self-evident good thing. Coaches, being coaches, were more concerned about injuries.
But now to the product itself…
After the initial novelty and intrigue wore off, the format itself disappointed. The stadium layout restricted the width to 32 meters (and 55 long), making it desperately narrow and providing little space or opportunity for play-makers to play, or the pace men to scorch down the sidelines. Fleeting glimpses of the pinup boys Baker, Isles and Norton almost stretching their legs were overshadowed by more predictable carries, attempted grubbers with varying degrees of accuracy, and few fireworks in the handling department. With no lineouts, uncontested scrums (so what’s the point?), and limited room, this was rugby with the rugby stripped out.
Add some confusion over the rules, can you or can you not kick to touch from a penalty, which was allowed in the first two games but not thereafter, and a highly unsatisfactory conclusion to the Women’s Final, when the hosts England beat the United States by virtue of an unbalanced extra-time decider. Now, if the players and coaches didn’t understand what was going on, the crowd certainly didn’t either. Indeed, England’s moment of glory was somewhat anticlimactic.
So does it have legs?
It doesn’t need saying that players and coaches love to compete in front of the crowds and the cameras. Logical too, that cash-strapped unions will pimp out their charges for the smallest of fees, but it will ultimately be the fans (and media execs) who render a verdict. Will they come back for a 4 leg-series of similar or more likely watered-down fare, or will this be a well-intentioned and well-executed one off?
Fan reaction (and I sat and interacted in 5 different parts of the arena) was mixed, with those present mostly positive. From those watching on TV, the opposite was apparently true, so the jury is still out.
What next then? How will it fit in the already crowded rugby calendar, given the organisers insistence that they want the top players? Will they tinker further with the rules? Will they, can they, stretch the dimensions? More questions than Brexit, but while I wish anyone promoting the game the very best, I remain unconvinced. With global 15’s and 7’s in such rude health, and 10’s, Beach and Touch rugby already doing their level best to confuse neutrals and distract potential investors, we are in danger of cannibalizing ourselves even further. So there you have it. Rugby X – not the Halloween horror show some predicted, but not rugby either.