Paul McGregor’s decision to start Ben Hunt at hooker for this week’s clash against the Manly Sea Eagles marks a new high in salary cap history.
Something happened at the Anzac Day game between the Dragons and the Roosters – for 28 short minutes rugby league became great again.
It was like I hitched a ride on the DeLorean back to a time to before rugby league became akin to WrestleMania. If you aren’t sure what I’m referring to, I invite you to rewatch the last 28 minutes of the Anzac Day clash at the SCG and not feel like you’re watching a game from the 1990s.
It was great to watch!
At the start of that 28-minute period a special try was scored by diminutive full back Matt Dufty. I’ll try and paint a picture, but words won’t give the effort justice.
Dufty receives the ball 65 metres from the Rooster try line in a seemingly feeble second-man play. He stops for a short moment and then changes direction back to the inside. Some very weary looking forwards are caught flat-footed and fail to maintain a straight defensive line. A gap presents itself.
He accelerates. Through he goes, skipping out of an attempted tackle from one of those forwards and running 30 metres to meet James Tedesco at fullback.
He steps once, twice and jinks past a wrong-footed Tedesco. This gives Cooper Cronk time to come over in cover defence to his left. He seems to have him covered, but no – Dufty feints to pass to Corey Norman in support.
Cronk slows for a millisecond in anticipation of the pass. Fatal mistake. Dufty is only ten metres from the try line. He puts his head down and the fast-closing Latrell Mitchell can only make a dive for the cameras as Dufty scores a scintillating try.
As Bruce McAveney would say, special!
But what followed was also special. It was some of the best old-school footy I have witnessed for a long time.
In attack both teams were making significant metres. Hit-ups saw offloads to players in motion – even Cronk attempted a midfield chip and chase that nearly led to a four-pointer. The smaller men – Dufty, Cronk, Tedesco and Cameron McInnes – consistently looked threatening.
And it wasn’t the attack that made me look at my Android and think it shouldn’t be invented yet. In defence there were one-on-one ball-and-all tackles – tackles around the ankles and not the third man in kind. Two-man tackles, one around the thighs and one to wrap the ball up, bringing the ball carrier down quickly. The wrestle became a thing of the past.
It was glorious. But why for the last 28 minutes of the match did this occur?
I’ll tell you why: fatigue.
Players were out on their feet, and more so than normal. At times they looked like what I imagine would be a retired Steve Roach trying to get past six on the beep test. Take a look at the close-up of Paul Vaughan coming off with eight minutes and 46 seconds to go on the clock.
It was fatigue that opened up the game. The smaller men and the ones with superior fitness came to the fore, posing questions for tiring defences. The play the ball was fast and there were more frequent offloads.
To counteract that, defenders became solely concerned with just making tackles, not engaging in the wrestle. They couldn’t – players were too tired to maintain the uniformity of the defensive line required for the wrestle, a la the Dufty try.
But what precipitated the unusual change in game dynamic? There was no difference except for the occasion – was that it? More intensity in the play or just the 27-degree weather?
But the reason is beside the point. What the point is is that I would love more of it.
The game doesn’t have to become like the said 28 minutes for the whole 80 minutes. By all means maintain that initial physicality or the softening up period, because that’s rugby league – but rugby league can also be scintillating and explosive, a game that prizes finesse and fitness equally, not just size and brute strength. Unfortunately, I think it’s geared a little too much towards the latter two qualities.
Bring back the treasured 80-minute forward, the wingers who can carve tiring defences, not just finish. Return the players who are allowed play what’s in front, not according to a system.
‘How?’ you might ask, and I think the answer is obvious. Modify the interchange a little.
It’s been done before, when it was changed from ten to eight in 2016 to allow for a freer flowing game. But when wingers, centres, fullbacks and halves don’t need rest breaks, eight interchanges can be used for between six players.
It effectively gives those who arguably work the hardest, the forwards, a break. It means defences are more uniform for longer and line breaks are harder to come by for more of the game.
My proposition to open up the game even more is to adjust slightly interchange rule so that once you’re subbed, your game is over – unless for blood, and that can only occur after all interchanges have been exhausted. Keep the number of interchanges to eight, thus allowing not only for strategic but also injury replacements.
Teams will want to keep their best players on the field for longer, leading a to a natural lethargy as the game progresses and giving the exciting players room to move. It will also showcase those great defensive players who can make one on one tackles at any stage in the game. The good old days!
You may ask what happens if a team has a horror run of injuries in a game or foul play leads to an injury. I would argue the game is tough and injuries will occur. In the instance of foul play, I would encourage the judiciary to go harder on foul play as a deterrent and hand down suspensions of three to four weeks instead of one to two weeks. This will quickly change behaviour.
I loved the last 28 minutes of the Anzac Day game and would love to see more of it, and I think small changes to the interchange rule could eb the catalyst to deliver it.
Imagine a game with the athleticism of today’s player’s but the openness of the 1980s and 1990s. How attractive would that be!