Fans should enjoy the NRL season, because there won’t be many more like it. The game’s seasons are numbered.
Due to the squillion-dollar fight between free-to-air and pay-TV for broadcast rights, there is a saturation of media coverage. That coverage exists to meet a demand – club memberships are up.
Today 16 NRL clubs, tomorrow an expanded reach and a bigger world. What could be rosier?
But in looking ever outwards and upwards in this showbiz, commercial world, rugby league’s custodians have forgotten to look inwards at how the game has evolved.
Go back 25 years and watch Benny Elias wander sideways right from dummy half inside his quarter, then pass from his right to Steve Roach, positioned well below the advantage line. Watch Roach run just over the line, then be tackled around the legs one-out.
Teams would move the ball sideways in hectares of space under the old five-metre rule, as defences amble around the field.
Remember the old rule-of-the-week times, when the attacking team could be penalised for the first receiver taking the ball inside the five-metre line? That absurdity lasted five minutes.
Today Elias would be smashed before he passed the ball, and if he did, Roach would be smashed by three opponents when receiving it.
And Balmain coach Warren Ryan was complaining even then there wasn’t enough space on the field.
How many fewer tries would be scored today if decoy runners were disallowed?
Those magnificent fat-gutted masters of the barger’s art like Great Britain Test prop Jack Wilkinson and George Piper are no more, replaced by props with chiselled bodies and ever greater strength and endurance.
Therein lies the problem, one not faced by Australian Football or rugby union.
Aussie Rules may now have more clusters of players, and be more defence orientated, but it has those hectares of space and strategic variations available.
Like league, union little resembles the game of 40 years ago, but being a more technical game, has plenty to tweak to create a different game.
League has little left to tweak.
At a junior level, it is becoming a game for a physical elite because of the growth of the human body. When that elite reaches NRL level, there are frightening collisions in little space.
Peter Sterling’s maxim that you have to go forward to earn the right to go sideways will become ever harder to achieve as fitter defenders reach the advantage line faster.
Alan Jones did a great service in his brief, unsuccessful stint as a rugby league coach.
Jones was going to get away from stereotyped coaching, free players to express themselves, make the man with the ball boss. This led to infrequent, exhilarating passing movements, but when you get to the opposition quarter, you needed a plan.
It wasn’t enough to give Elias free licence in the opposition quarter. Defences were too well-drilled for ad hockery.
They’re even better drilled in all parts of the field now.
Where will the game be in three or four seasons?
It’s impractical to widen fields. Is it practical to limit the number of tacklers? Reducing the number of players and further reducing the number of replacements would seem inevitable.
Super-fit, super-strong athletes will cancel space. Kicking will become a greater attacking weapon. Coaches will pour over videos looking for small strategic advantages.
It will be gridiron by another name.