Back in June I interviewed ARU General Manager, Pathways and Performance, Ben Whitaker, and he spoke of possible tweaks to the law variations introduced in the inaugural season of the National Rugby Championship.
With the competition now just seven days away, I spoke with Whitaker again this week to follow-up on those discussions.
The short of it is that there will be no tweaks to the existing variations going into the second season of the fledgling competition.
“And the reason for that really is that it wasn’t deemed that there was anything in the variations [introduced for the 2014 season] that we got wrong,” Whitaker told me.
“They all, in some way or another, proved to be effective and in line with what we were hoping to get out of it, and secondly, we were always pretty keen to go at least two years with a set of variations so that we can really get some consistency in our data.
“We’re open to continuing to review and change, but we just felt at this stage that two seasons would give a really good chance to review the variations.”
Though there were numerous suggestions made during the review process, none were compelling enough to be implemented ‘mid-cycle’, with the preference to keep the variations in place for at least two seasons.
“Across coaches and players, in particular, and even other stakeholders that we spoke to – including media – the only one that caused some discussion was the points value system,” Whitaker said.
“So we thought, ‘look, there probably wasn’t enough there to change it again’. And while this is a great opportunity and a great level to trial things, we still want it to be serious around teams wanting to prepare and evolve, and win ultimately.
“I think there is some value in looking closely at a change, to test whether we got it right in terms of the points values or particularly the reduction in points for penalty goals – which I think we have got right, to be honest.”
There is certainly discussion around whether three points for a conversion is the right amount, and this was a topic Whitaker and I discussed last December as part of the review, and again in June.
“All in all, we had three of the nine teams had that as a point for discussion, but not necessarily suggesting it was wrong. It probably wasn’t enough to act, we didn’t think,” Whitaker said.
Additionally, with the overall points values up for discussion at the World Rugby level already, it made more sense to keep the NRC values as is for 2015, rather than make another change this season, and then perhaps another one again should World Rugby make changes at the top level.
“We don’t shy away from the fact that goal kicking is important. It was one of our biggest fears, and we spoke about it, that if we reduce the amount for a penalty goal and all of a sudden we don’t value it. When we get to the highest levels, and this is what we keep saying, it’s another area we need to improve.
“I want the guys [in the NRC] to be lining up conversions knowing that this could make a massive difference in the game,” Whitaker said.
I wrote back in June that two referees was being seriously considered for 2015, but that idea also hasn’t progressed beyond discussion.
“There’s some reasonable data around [two referees] at Varsity Cup level in South Africa over three years or so, but the interesting thing there is that it hasn’t made its way beyond that level. It’s not foolproof, and it’s not proving to be the silver bullet, and they keep tinkering around with how it’s managed.
“But it’s not something that’s being discussed at higher levels, and even for domestic competitions [Currie Cup, ITM Cup, NRC], so we weren’t sure there was value.”
So it means the Law Variations introduced in 2014 remain in play and untouched. The complete set of variations can be viewed on the NRC website.
Whitaker said he was really encouraged by the way the teams embraced the variations last season, and that the individual coaches’ attacking mindsets within their respective teams made the rugby as attractive to watch as it was. And that’s certainly true. The law variations would’ve counted for naught if the teams didn’t play to attack.
With this in mind, the evolution of set-piece importance will be really interesting in 2015, as will the fitness and defensive work being undertaken by the teams – tries were scored late in games last season because defences were fatigued.
The NRC will be launched properly next week, ahead of the first game next Thursday night – a replay of the 2014 decider between Brisbane City and Perth at Ballymore.
We should also know more about the streaming solution for the competition, which has been worked on in conjunction with Fox Sports.
My understanding is that the three non-broadcast games will be very consistent in their presentation, probably even consistent with the Thursday night live game, and that Fox Sports’ current FFA Cup coverage is a good example of what to expect, both in terms of production and access. A Monday night review show has been mentioned too, which would be a great addition to the coverage of the competition.
Whitaker dropped a nice little morsel at the end of our chat, that final details are being worked on to have a Ranfurly Shield-type challenge and defence competition operate within the broader NRC tournament this season and beyond.
The idea was picked up by the ARU from articles and discussion on Green and Gold Rugby and The Roar, who saw it as a great opportunity to add extra meaning to NRC competition games. As 2014 premiers, Brisbane City would start with the trophy.
“We’d let them start with it, yeah,” Whitaker confirmed. “The idea would be that you defend it every time you play at home, but being a short comp, we’re looking at something like once defended twice at home, the next game – home or away – it would be up again.
“So it’s bit like boxing, you’ve got however long to defend it or it goes up automatically.
“There was a fair bit of commentary last year about it, and someone went down the angle of the ‘Shawn Mackay Shield’. We raised it and thought ‘good idea’.
“There’s a couple of things we still need to sort out, but certainly a really good concept, we believe, to add just a little something else to the competition.”
Whatever it ends up being called, it’s really good news, and even more reason for Brisbane City and Perth to start strongly next week.