Hope that Super Rugby AU law trials will make rugby exciting again

Rugby will be Australia's third professional football code to return when the Super Rugby AU competition kicks off on Friday night, a tournament tasked with an added challenge amid the coronavirus pandemic: Making the 15-man game exciting again.

The Reds and Waratahs get the fledgling tournament underway in Brisbane, the hope that it will merely serve as a stopgap for 2020 and that a trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition will come to fruition next year.

Super Rugby AU is just the second professional tournament to begin around the world, with New Zealand Super Rugby Aotearoa set for its fourth round this coming weekend. But it's the presence of seven trial laws in Super Rugby AU that Rugby Australia hopes will garner the attention of rugby fans both at home and abroad, and potentially set in motion some permanent changes that improve the game as a spectacle.

In attempting to create greater excitement around the tryline, teams will now be able to kick behind the tryline where a grounding of the ball by defensive team will then result in a dropout from the tryline rather than the 22 in the same fashion as rugby league. Furthermore, an aerial cross-kick - the type of which made Israel Folau such a threat around the tryline -- can no longer be marked by the defensive team within the 22.

There is also the presence of the 50/22 or 22/50 kick, which essentially operates in the same fashion as rugby league's 40/20, while an attacking player who is held up over the line will bring about a goal-line dropout rather than a five-metre scrum.

"That idea around, the opportunity to perform attacking kicks inside your attacking 22 [is exciting]," Ben Whitaker, Rugby Australia's head of professional rugby services, told ESPN. "The consequences aren't as drastic territorially as they are now; the dropout from the goal-line as opposed to the 22 is quite a significant difference as the consequence you'll face there.

"We do look across at other sports and codes and the attacking kicks into or around the goal-line [in rugby league] are exciting, so that's one that I am really keen to see how it plays out and how the teams adapt."

While World Rugby in May released a number of "optional trial laws" to help confront the spread of COVID-19, both New Zealand and Australia have essentially gone it alone in creating their own pop-up domestic tournaments.

New Zealand Rugby mandated the red-card replacement law after 20 minutes and golden point - trials Rugby Australia has also adopted for Super Rugby AU - but also established greater focus in the refereeing at the breakdown, something that resulted in a whopping 58 penalties Super Rugby Aotearoa's opening round.

Those numbers have since come down to 50 and then 33 across the two games in each round since, the players seemingly adjusting to new interpretations, while the referees, too, have owned their mistakes.

But should Super Rugby AU see similar penalty numbers across the first two rounds - referees will have the same renewed focus on the breakdown - fringe fans of the game will likely soon switch off having perhaps given the 15-man game another chance.

But there is no doubting Australia is leading the way when it comes to trying to make the game more entertaining, while at the same time trying not to compromise the very things that give it is individuality.

"It's really hard when you go down this path [law trials]; everyone thinks it's as simple as "do this, do that'," Whitaker told ESPN. "We know that we've got to maintain the fabric of the game, that's the No. 1 consideration from World Rugby when you present law variations for approval.

"We also know that we'll need to present a Wallabies team that has come through playing a game that is not significantly different than what they're going to face when we play, at least, New Zealand, at some point this year. And then you look at some things that are probably going to work, and you don't know until you trial it, but I think the exciting thing is that we get to trial it at Super Rugby level whereas typically when we trial laws we do it at a lower level [NRC/Shute Shield]."

And then there are the scrums.

Talk to the average sports fan, who might have but a passing interest in rugby, or even those once rusted-on fans who have drifted away from the game in recent times, and they always point directly at the scrums.

The key set-piece will never be removed from rugby, in doing so would change the game irrevocably, but there is little doubt vital playing minutes can be saved, and repeated resets avoided, simply by implementing sanctions for time wasting.

"We've got other mandates around game management that we think will be successful," Whitaker said of the set-piece focus for Super Rugby AU. "We don't want to take scrums out of the game but we also don't want it to be this monotonous reset of scrums, which I think is what most people really zero in on when they talk about their dislike of scrummaging.

"Scrums are a really important part of the game, the players know that and they want that to be important part of the game, but they don't want continuous or persistent resets. So we'll manage that and to make sure we use the laws as they are now to make sure a game isn't wasting time, and that's one we're really keen to see."

Rugby Australia has long recognized the need for its product to offer greater entertainment in a market the AFL and NRL have captured by fostering a contest where the ball is in play as much as possible.

And the need for Australian rugby to achieve a similar outcome has never been more critical, with the code attempting to extract as much money as possible out of potential broadcasters for its next five-year rights cycle.

But where the NRL and AFL are essentially laws unto themselves - the AFL has no global footprint and rugby league is but a speck on the global sports sphere - World Rugby oversees any law changes to the 15-man game and has, in recent times, really only altered its dangerous tackle and foul play laws.

Whitaker believes that might be about to change, that the global stewards are actually starting to see merit in Rugby Australia's trials.

"I think it's taken time [to convince World Rugby] and full credit to Scott Johnson and the role he plays at World Rugby law review group; as most people appreciate, he's a big thinker about the game and has a loud voice, and it makes a difference," Whitaker told ESPN.

"And some of these law variations have been on the table for some time, we've played them in the NRC, but they're starting to resonate now and, again, the chance to play them at Super Rugby level is absolutely key. It won't be just a domestic tournament, even though we are just playing against each other, but it's real professional club rugby where we are going play these laws."

Whitaker also admitted there were very real moments when he thought Super Rugby AU was never going to get off the ground and that there could be potentially no professional rugby played in Australia in 2020.

Not only has that scenario thankfully been avoided, but Super Rugby AU may also help to enhance the wider rugby product, to make the "running game" exciting again.