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It’s a big week for rugby’s change managers


Managing change is a tough gig.

In any group there are those who welcome it, a group who are curious and willing to explore, some who are passive and “show me”, others who are “why can’t things stay the same”, some white ants, and a few who aren’t even aware things are happening.

The late Terry Pratchett used this phenomenon to humorous effect in his dialogue when groups gathered – there’s always someone who has no idea what’s going on – and nowadays I freely admit I am that person. It helps a lot, especially when you’re on the sidelines in rugby, a sport with so many stakeholders that it’s almost impossible to reach all of them when changes happen.

Thursday’s compelling Test match between the Wallabies and All Blacks capped a busy rugby week of changes. Looking on, armed solely with water bottles and a plate of oranges, I ask: how have those changes been managed When looking at changes in rugby, why do we look to South Africa?

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Darcy Swain’s brutal hit on Quinn Tupaea’s knee took me to the World Rugby site with its change management megaphone, the “Law Application Guidelines” located three mouse clicks deep into the site. Under “Side Entry July 2022” the keen player or referee is informed that:

“Feedback from players and coaches suggests one element needs renewed focus – side entry by both attacking and defending players.

“There still remains injuries to the lower limbs due to the angles and speed of arriving players and there has also been a range of subtle, yet potentially dangerous injury when it comes to players being tipped within the breakdown.

“We are therefore asking officials across the game to have a stricter focus and application of current guidelines and law with regards to direction and angle of arriving players at the breakdown, ruck and maul.”

Only Mr Swain can answer whether he read this prior to the match. I’d say it’s likely he did, because all professionals keep abreast of developments in their field, sports professionals included. There is a diagram and videos.

Darcy Swain of the Wallabies leaves the field after receiving a yellow card during The Rugby Championship & Bledisloe Cup match between the Australia Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at Marvel Stadium on September 15, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

In any case the chap who keeps up to date the dossier on every referee would have mentioned it. What’s certain is that referee Maynard did get the memo, and his decisions on the night in this context appear quite restrained.

We can sum World Rugby’s broader change management process as like throwing a rock into the middle of a pond. The rock hits the referees, who then rely on sound waves emitted from a whistle to create a ripple effect.

Sometimes it’s a tidal wave, such as in 2019 when the Australians ignored the memo about the head protection tackle protocols going into the World Cup. Whoopsie!

There’s been lots of rumblings about delays in the game. For years we’ve had conferences, editorials, commentators, and occasionally a comment on social media. It cannot be said that it’s a problem from out of the blue.

I have actually seen and heard the whistle blown for time wasting prior to Thursday’s match.

This puts me in a special minority but we’re used to that. I have hunted high and low for announcements of World Rugby’s wider policy picture, namely that “After all these years we are actually going to enforce all the Laws in the big book of Rugby Laws.”

Sure, during a Test match is an oblique way to let the world know, but I can visualise some high-paid public relations guru saying to a bunch of crusties around a board table, “Impact! How can we maximise the impact?! When do we have the world’s gaze upon us? What’s the moment we can cut through and get tomorrow’s headlines? At the end of a compelling Test match? Where can we get one of those? What better time?”

World Rugby’s policy change announcement is a textbook case of the shock-and-awe approach to PR announcements. It shows the power of the pea in that whistle as a tool for change.

Now that we have the new policy, I have a favourite Law I would like to see enforced and wish to join the queue. No, not about putting the ball in straight to the scrums.

Law 9 (7) c: “A player must not do anything that may lead the match officials to consider that an opponent has committed an infringement.” It’ll be a lot quieter out there.

Thursday’s Test match saw a change almost no one has commented on. I never thought I would see it in the Southern Hemisphere. Dublin sets the standard with their “respect the kicker” and Twickenham and Cardiff are up there with them. Silence for the kicker! It’s wonderful!

Eden Park last month was dreadful, and I had just about given up. Hamilton added cowbells; I despaired utterly. Goodness me, who would have thought that a Melbourne crowd would show the way to good manners equivalent to the Northern Hemisphere!

Waterboys on the pitch is another change. World Rugby has this in their trial Laws under “Additional Persons”. It’s interesting but I can’t see why Sub-sub-Law i) needs to be so specific about who we must not be, it’s not like we aspire to such giddy heights personally. I’m not going to bring a discrimination case about lost career opportunities.

29. The following may enter the playing area provided they do not interfere with play:

a) Two nominated water carriers during a stoppage in play for an injury to a player or when a try has been scored.
i) In matches with a squad size of 23, they may only enter during the approved water times, and no more than twice per half with the approval of the Sideline Manager/4th Official. A water carrier must not be a Head Coach or Director of Rugby. Note: the hot weather guidelines may warrant one further break per half.

I mean, I’m happy enough being a waterboy, but I do have my conceits. I like to think that when all those rich folk at Twickenham sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ they are singing it for my colleagues, myself, and all those water carriers who have gone before us.

We know our place: it’s among the water bottles and oranges, although I suspect the trial laws are because one or two of us have overstepped the mark. I’m not naming names; we have our own code of conduct.

But if anyone from World Rugby was to look at South Africa (I speak hypothetically, of course) they might see yet another issue emerging. Ironic to think that having solved the hydration part of the equation, there’s now problems among the oranges.

This is another part of change management, the unintended consequences. “Hydration Officer” is putting on airs. “Dietician” I can understand – they do an important job and truly I think it’s an occupation which is undervalued. But it’s all nowadays a very long way from simply slicing up the fruit.

That’s some sort of metaphor for rugby.



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