Ben Ryan: Rugby X, the threat of Basketball and dispelling critics’ myths
Union, League, Sevens, Tens, Touch, Tag and Mini Rugby - Rugby Union as we know it suffers no shortage of variants, and the latest progeny of the full XV-man code comes in the form of Ben Ryan’s ‘Rugby X’. Arguably, the sport’s answer to football’s five-a-side.
With Ryan acting as the Technical Director, face and indeed heart of this newfound sport, The Rugby Magazine chatted to the former Olympic Gold-winning Fiji Sevens coach to ascertain the lay of the land and dispel the popular myths he has encountered since the project’s launch.
But first, a brief background on Rugby X itself. The ‘X’ stands for the number of players that take to the pitch, five players per side for a total of ten fast and furious athletes on a significantly shrunken pitch to that of its sevens or fifteens cousins.
While it does draw marked similarities to Sevens, both shortened versions of the fifteen-man game, Rugby X tweaks and abandons a number of laws mutually shared by Sevens and fifteens. In the hope of speeding up the game, there are no lineouts, just quick sidelined throw-ins. While half of union’s set-piece is abandoned for the sake of upping the pace, the Sevens-style three-man scrum will remain; although uncontested. Additionally, each game lasts just ten minutes, with no half-time breaks. A rolling substitutions system is employed while the event itself will take place in indoor arenas on artificial pitches laid down for the occasion.
In many ways Rugby X is rugby’s answer to both five-a-side football and the travelling circus, poppinng up at will around the world's top stadia, trading exotic animals for Sevens stars. This ability to materialise into areas of the world formerly unreachable by either fifteens or Sevens makes for an interesting, dynamic proposition.
But the topmost level of the game is not alone in its parachuting capacity. Ryan insists this simplified, glammed-up code possesses the potential to reach formerly untouched areas as an entry-level sport.
“The RFU does some good stuff, but the vast majority of inner-city schools have been untouched by rugby,” Ryan said, “and there’s probably no P.E staff that have played rugby either, or a lot haven’t. So bringing in a new game that’s very simple and can be played in a small area, and is short as well, I think is a good tool as an entry-level game.
“There are too many elements to it [fifteens] to have it as an entry point to the sport. Sevens is done on a big field and it’s actually really hard as a startup game because it’s just so knackering. So we’re kind of coming in somewhere in the middle of it really, and because we wanted something that could be played indoors. We can take it to indoor stadiums in big cities."
Since the launch of Rugby X, Ryan has contended with the criticism that comes hand-in-hand with innovation. The most egregious of which, in Ryan's eyes it seems, comes in the criticism of Rugby X as a vehicle to introduce the inner city demographic to rugby as a whole.
“People do not understand the current landscape, particularly in inner city schools." Ryan said. "They think ‘oh yeah, they play football and that’s why they don’t play rugby’. They’re not playing anything at the moment. There’s a real lack of extracurricular activity.”
“You go to somewhere like, let’s take the Canary Wharf area, they’ve only got one rugby club in the burrow, with one pitch, it’s one of the most densely populated parts of the country; and it’s also the highest area in the country where drugs are sold, so gang crime is really high in that area.
“A contact sport like rugby, that has all the values that we love about the game, could be really alluring and it could really help that.
"I never publicly talk about the work that I do around knife crime and gang stuff, but I spent a lot of time working for Safer London and mentoring kids, and I can see that they need things to do. They need extra-curricular sport, or whatever, to give them something in their life they can look forward to doing and not fall into the other parts of society that are causing all this other stuff.
“And I’m seeing schools shutting down early, they’re not having their gyms open to save electricity, they’re not doing extra-curricular sport. I’ve had conversations with Sports Trust and with the government and everyone sees it as a positive, especially if we can get it commercially funded and no one is having to take it out of any other pot, I see a real positive in that.”
One area of concern Ryan certainly does not stand alone in holding is the fact that rugby is in dire need of balancing the books, with the majority of the game’s biggest unions and clubs losing money hand over fist. An area in which Ryan believes his latest project can be used to combat.
“I’ve said it on a few occasions, but we want to attract new crowds," Ryan said. "The crowds that are coming to rugby are getting older and older, the sponsors are getting older and older. Now it’s insurance, next will be funeral directors in a few years. That’s the profile of the sport and we can attract younger players and a younger crowd.
“We’re at risk of other sports overtaking us pretty quickly over the next decade, basketball [is overtaking] for sure. My mate’s kid didn’t know much about the NBA (America's National Basketball Association), but over the last twelve months Sky have shown recorded or live games, and then there's the NBA computer game. Suddenly all these kids know what’s going on in the NBA and they love it, and they not only love it, they’re buying merchandise and they want to play.
"From the work I’ve done in the NBA I can already see how alluring it is, and I love the sport, but they’re also the type of young kids we want to bring into rugby as well."
Continuing, Ryan stressed the importance of upping the tempo and reducing idle time spent waiting for XVs or Sevens to restart.
“Look at fifteens and sevens, in both sports the ball is in play for about 50% [of the event], whereas we’ve set ourselves the guiding principle that we want the games that we produce to have 75% ball-in-play time, and that’s a good thing that gives people more interactions.
“In a Sevens game once you’ve scored you’ve got thirty seconds to get the conversion, twenty seconds then to walk back before you restart. It’s sixty seconds every time a try is scored where, really, nothing is happening; and you get four of five tries a game in Sevens. We’re getting that time back to get the ball-in-hand, as well as not having lineouts to slow play down as well, and the same for kick-offs. That’s where I think we’re getting that extra 25% back.”
In addition to stressing the benefit of the extra salaries Sevens stars will receive from competing in this latest code, with both men and women taking equal slices of the pie, and the 18 months of work that have gone into this project, Ryan hopes that Rugby X could serve as a potential “incubation plate” for World Rugby.
“Incubation I guess is the right word I’m looking for to try new things on and off the field. Whether that’s law changes or how we package and educate the crowd, because it is going to be a light show and music and razzmatazz. We’re going to be having sensors in the board that will measure all sorts of things that the crowd will then be able to see. Who’s running the fastest, who’s got the lowest resting heart rate, all these sorts of things that young new people coming into the sport and watching the sport will enjoy.
“I’m sure loads of people are going to say it’s going to be gimmicky, and we are going to be doing entertaining stuff that you won’t see in normal rugby. You can look at it as gimmicky, but you need to have an all-round package to retain and get new people. There’s a lot of competition for what people can do these days with their money and with their free time, and we want to give them a real entertainment package over a couple of hours. It’ll be closer to what American sport is doing in the NBA and stuff like that.”
Rugby X will launch its first ever event at the London O2 Arena in October of this year, a trial period World Rugby have permitted Ryan and co, planning to review and either continue with or axe from the ever-growing family of codes that have sprung from the sport that William Webb Ellis created almost 200 years ago.