It’s been another off-season from hell for the NRL, although this year the bad-news stories are the kind that head office would almost be happy about.
The NRL seem inclined to change the game’s rules on a yearly basis. Some say change is important for the game to evolve, while others argue the game is perfect the way it is.
A number of changes were announced in December for the upcoming 2020 season. One of the new rules is related to scrums and where on the field they will take place. Under the new rule the team feeding the ball will have the option of setting the scrum at three different locations on the field. The first is ten metres in from the sideline, which is the typical position players and fans are used to. The second option is 20 metres in from the sideline. Finally, teams can also choose to set the scrum in the centre of the field, in line with the black dot on the crossbar.
At first glance it is difficult to see what problem the NRL is trying to solve. The NRL have stated they have taken on board the feedback from fans when making rule changes, but it is hard to imagine many fans suggested numerous scrum location options in the end-of-season survey.
Looking closer at the new rule, there is potential it will have a fairly significant impact on the game, especially when you consider there may be ten to 15 scrums in a game, sometimes more in a high-error match.
Strategies will no doubt have to adapt. Teams will have greater difficulty pinning down the opposition in the corner of the field to have them work the ball out from their own line by kicking the ball into touch.
In that scenario the team working the ball out from their own line are usually jammed in close to the sideline and are forced to make one-out or dummy-half runs to try to make some metres while working towards the centre of the field. With the rule change teams can now elect to feed the scrum from the centre of the field, which would be the logical choice in this scenario.
It will be a much easier set working from the middle of the field and a greater opportunity to end up in a position to put in an attacking kick at the end of it. It even opens up the possibility of playing more attacking football from your own end of the field.
Rather than kick the ball into touch when deep in opposition territory, playmakers will prefer to keep the ball in play or attempt to force a repeat set by kicking into the in-goal. This should lead to fewer scrums, and subsequently the ball will be in play for longer periods.
The other scenario is when teams receive a scrum feed in the attacking zone. This is where things get interesting. The option again may be to feed the scrum from the centre of the field and have attacking players on either side. The defence will be under greater pressure, and we may have seen the last of the trend of having forwards defending out of the scrum.
There will be more space for the creative players to attack, and forwards would be best left in the scrum rather than having to defend a player with quick footwork one on one. Teams may also choose the 20-metre-in option, which allows for a big backline spread while still having a bit of space to surprise and attack the short side.
Breaking from the scrum becomes a crucial skill for defending teams, particularly with scrums in the centre of the field. Defenders need to communicate and ensure that each player is aware of the space they need to fill as soon as the scrum breaks. Referees will be under even more pressure to police the scrums effectively as back-rowers in particular will be tempted to break from the scrum early to get into a defensive position.
Teams will be given five seconds to inform the referee of their choice of scrum position. It is unclear how this time limit will be enforced. Five seconds is not a lot of time and there will probably be a lot of confusion in the opening rounds. We will probably see the big forwards amble their way down to the usual scrum position they have become accustomed to for their entire career only to be summoned to the centre of the field. Let’s hope this doesn’t result in scrums taking even longer than usual.
Many people question whether scrums have any place in the modern game, and those arguments will remain. The rule change may appear innocuous, but it has the potential to change tactics and how the game is played. How much of an impact it will make remains to be seen.
Teams should be using the preseason to work on these strategies in both attack and defence. The ones that don’t may be in for an unpleasant surprise when the 2020 NRL season kicks off.