December 2020 Opinion

The NRL is a danger to itself

The NRL should stop messing with rules that had no real need to be changed.

This is a mid-month update due to the new rules instituted for the 2021 season.

In affectionate remembrance of the National Rugby League which died at League Central on 11 December 2020. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP. N.B. – The body will be cremated and the urn shoved up Peter V’landys’ backside.

Now that the niceties are out of the way, it’s time to unpack some of the most grotesque rule changes the game has ever seen. 

The NRL right now cannot be entrusted with the stewardship of the game. The recent rule changes make a mockery of the sport and will ensure it looks completely different to the game played a mere two seasons ago.

I’m not against change. I’m against change for the sake of it and what I see as the detriment of a most beloved sport.

Sports change. Tactics change. Rules change. But what these rule changes do is mess with something that was working.

The NRL seems intent on shooting itself in the foot and then leaving a gaping wound to ensure a deadly infection sets in.

Let me begin by saying that there are a handful of changes I agree with.

The first being that players who stop play have to leave the field. They’ve been doing that in football for about a decade now, it ensures players don’t fake injuries to slow the game down and it gives the referees power to do more than just stand there and talk to frustrated captains.

Teams not being docked a captain’s challenge because of inconclusive evidence is also positive. This is used in cricket with umpire’s call under the DRS and ensures players aren’t punished because the broadcast team couldn’t get the correct angle for a decision.

There are two changes where I basically shrug my shoulders.

The “break” call being used at scrums. Well done, I hope that didn’t cost a lot to come up with. The call of “out” had been sufficient since before rugby league was invented but it simply hasn’t been enforced for about 30 years. I wonder how many committees and rules meetings they needed to go through before they thought changing the call would solve the problem of the referees not enforcing the rules.

Players handing the ball over if they roll the ball between their legs. Again, that problem is solved if the referee just enforced the original rule instead of constantly telling players to “put your foot on it”. For crying out loud, if they had penalised players for that 10 years ago every player would be using their foot.

Now let’s get into the meat of it.

Two point field goals

Why? Just why? What purpose does this actually serve?

Rugby league had two point field goals until 1974 when they were dropped to a single point due to teams kicking too many. So the NRL’s idea is to go back to a rule changed nearly 50 years ago in order to speed the game up?

There is no logic in that. There is no proof that two point field goals will make the game more exciting. Teams rarely kick field goals from 40 metres out anyway due to the distance and the chance of conceding a seven tackle set or giving the opposition an easy start to their set of six.

Chris Kennedy of NRL.com ran the numbers and found that only 10 per cent of attempted field goals from outside 40 metres are actually converted. In fact, out of the 56 attempted field goals in 2020, only 10 were from outside 40 metres and only one of those was converted.

Compare that with shots between 21-30 metres out which are converted 46 per cent of the time and you have a very high risk for a one point reward. 

The major criticism of field goals is not that those games are boring, it’s that games requiring a field goal often descend into a simple shoot out. Those games are usually separated by one point, with the side trailing simply trucking the ball through the middle to try and get into range.

All this rule does is make all two point games a field goal shootout rather than the try that would be required to normally win.

10 metre infringements now six again

The moment this rule was announced you could hear all defensively minded coaches snickering to themselves. They got a rule that encourages being offside early in the set.

If there was one major criticism of the six again rule it’s that referees were too keen to blow them early and were more reticent to call them later in sets. Teams seemingly took advantage of this by happily giving away a restart on the first or second tackle if it meant they got to dominate the ruck and slow it down.

All this rule does is encourage teams to go early. Where before they could be punished with a kick for touch that marches 30-40 metres down field, now all that happens is they have to defend an extra tackle.

So what? You ask any coach and they’ll happily take the extra tackle over the penalty if it allows them to pin the opposition deep in their own half.

This benefits the attacking side getting smashed on their own line in no way whatsoever other than they might get one or two extra opportunities to send another forward into the teeth of the defence that is belting them off about eight metres.

No scrums for a ball in touch

Three weeks ago Peter V’landys said he liked scrums, he probably wasn’t getting rid of them. Now they’re all but gone except for mistakes such as forward passes and knock-ons.

During 2020 they adopted a rule change of allowing the captain of the feeding side to move the scrum to three different points on the field.

We saw a lot of attacking and enterprising play from these situations with teams benefiting from the fact they could place a scrum mid-field and shift players around to cause confusion among the defence.

Now we get a banal handover, with defensive lines set and a player with a hit up into three defenders who will wrestle him to the ground.

This rule change in no way encourages enterprising play. 

Bunker reviews all tries

If you’re a fan of the EPL like me then you probably started screaming the moment you read this.

‘Member when you could celebrate a goal? ‘Member when you only had to worry about the guys in the middle? I ‘member.

Well under the new rule, which was trialled during the 2020 season and was a complete flop, nobody has any idea what’s going on.

The Bunker will be tasked with checking every try and holding up play before the conversion attempt is taken if they want to have a proper look. This is no doubt an overreaction from the Jaxson Paulo try.

None of this makes sense.

Firstly if The Bunker holds up play to check a try, then you have the same issue with time being used to undertake a review.

Secondly, as EPL fans can attest, it’s gut wrenching to try and celebrate a try knowing it could be taken away without any explanation from the officials.

The current system mostly works because fans know what is happening and players know what is happening. 

The proposed system is used by the NFL but that works because there are natural stoppages following a touchdown due to the need to sub in a special teams unit for the PAT. 

If anything, all this rule does is slow the game down even more and inject mass confusion.

Are there any rules that should be changed?

As I said at the start, I’m not against change. I’m against change for the sake of it.

Now, I was a fan of the seven tackle set when it was originally brought in, but I believe the rule goes too far. Instead of preventing teams from avoiding kick returns by booting the ball dead, it punishes teams trying to score.

Field goals, attacking kicks and knock-ons in goal should be removed from the rule. In all of those situations teams are trying to score. Why should they concede seven tackles if the ball goes dead in goal? 

If anything you’re seeing teams more hesitant to kick into the in-goal and the game is poorer for it when you see last tackle plays end in a meekly run play down a short side that is easily marked.

Funnily enough it’s a viewpoint shared by Jamie Soward who is also a critic of the 40 metre two point field goal.

And finally, a six man bench should be employed to allow coaches to have more flexibility. It was an opportunity missed not to try this in 2020 as a way to try and alleviate some of the workload on players in a condensed season.

At the moment coaches are effectively all employing the same tactic with their benches. Three forwards and a utility. You want excitement? Then imagine a six man bench in State of Origin with the likes of Ryan Papenhuyzen and AJ Brimson able to be deployed late in matches to open games up without compromising the integrity of the middle of the field by sacrificing a forward.

I also don’t see how any of this attracts a new audience. The game, in recent years, has chopped and changed a lot with new rules, but there has been no real marked difference in ratings or crowds. Why are they so sure this will work?

I’ve been watching rugby league for 20 years. These rules do not make me want to watch more games.

My wife is a casual viewer, probably the NRL’s target market for a new audience and she has no interest in these rule changes. As far as she is concerned, why did they change them in the first place?

My last point is that this is not how a game should be run. 

In the past the NRL has trialled rules in the lower grades. They have seen them in action, seen how teams adapt and been able to analyse how best to use them in the NRL.

The NRL is not a guinea pig competition. It is the world’s premier rugby league competition that is being treated as some kind of sideshow by Peter V’landys.

If he wants these rule changes so bad then they should first be employed in the NSW and QLD Cups where real, match-proven data can be assessed and the impacts of these rules can be realised.

That happened with the two referee system. It happened with the captain’s challenge. Now all of a sudden there’s no time to go through things properly?

Because right now they’re just a bunch of ideas on paper and no one; Not the referees, the players, coaches or administrators know how they actually work.

4 comments

  1. What a great article ! …. It explains exactly what the problems with the game are today. The NRL seem to make changes just to justify some peoples existence. I have always said that the NRL have made it so confusing, frustrating and boring, that it can not attract new fans like it use to, nor can it keep the current ones ! There should be more changes, and they should be all starting with the administrators at the Labor Boy’s Club at the NRL and their ideological agenda’s !

  2. Great article. One change I’ve been arguing for is to change the kick off so that the scoring team kicks off and the team scored against receives. They do it in NFL. It stops one team scoring multiple tries in a row without the opposition having a set. I recall a game between South Sydney and Manly where South Sydney scored about 4 tries in a row killing the game

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