In Round 3, the NRL boldly introduced changes to how ruck infringements are policed and reduced the number of on-field referees from two to one.
This was arguably the most significant mid-season rule change since the introduction of the ten-metre rule midway through 1993. I can only imagine how that one would have gone down these days.
The aim has been to speed up the game and make it more of an attacking spectacle as the NRL looks to spread its wings to markets currently deprived of live sport.
There seems to be little argument that the game is much faster now. However, some have also bemoaned the number of blowout scorelines brought on by the new rules allowing one side to dominate possession for extended periods and tire out their opposition.
Are these grumblings actually grounded in reality, or are they just the pinings of the rusted-on league fan?
Let’s see how the numbers are looking in the 15 games since the NRL relaunched compared with the opening rounds.
If you had a feeling that the games haven’t been as even in the last two weeks, you would be bang on the money. The average winning margin has ballooned out from 11 points in Rounds 1 and 2 to 18.6 (15.7 if you don’t include the Roosters’ annihilation of Brisbane). Unsurprisingly there is also a shift in second-half margins, with these going from 9.4 in the opening rounds to 11.7 since the competition resumption, supporting the theory of the second-half blowout.
The rule changes have clearly been a success in encouraging attacking play. The number of line breaks per game in the opening couple of rounds was at 4.7, but increased to 7.3 in the last two rounds.
No prizes for guessing that the number of tries a game has also gone up, with 6.8 a game up from 5.7 in the first two rounds.
Meanwhile, the error rate now sits at 22 per game, compared to 21.4 in the opening rounds – a very marginal increase, but given that the ball is now in play for longer, perhaps not as high as what might have been expected.
However, the narrative of the new rules allowing one team to get a roll-on seems to be backed up by the stats. In Rounds 1 and 2, the share of possession was more evenly matched with an average difference of 6.8 per cent per game (that is, a roughly 53.5 per cent share of possession to 46.5 per cent).
Since Round 3 the average difference in each side’s possession per game stands at 11.5 – a sizeable shift. We can see this feed into the difference in run metres as well, with an average difference of 400 per game, up from 225 per game in the opening rounds. The average difference in post-contact metres has risen as well, now at 135 metres per game, up from 67 metres.
We can also see a clear change in the difference between each side’s tackle breaks. In the first two rounds the difference in tackle breaks made by each side was only 10.6 a game. This has now increased to a difference of 15.2.
Interestingly, the total number of missed tackles per game has stayed more or less at pre-shut-down levels – 60.7 a game now compared to 58.8 before the competition stopped, so the fatigue factor doesn’t necessarily equate to poorer defence on the whole.
So maintaining possession seems to be more important than ever before. However, some clubs are starting to adapt faster than others, with Newcastle incredibly hanging on for a draw against Penrith despite having only 41 per cent of possession and running 430 fewer metres, and Canberra posting a convincing win over Melbourne in spite of the Storm enjoying considerably better time with the ball.
Will the cakewalks start to reduce as sides adapt to this brave new world of NRL?
Time will tell, but one thing for certain is that – for better or worse – rugby league is now a different beast.