The match between the Panthers and Eels on Friday night brought to light some issues with the rules that are new to 2020, some that may have big ramifications as the finals fast approach.
The change to one referee and the new “six again” rule has drawn plenty of praise from fans in speeding up the ruck and adding to the pace of the game this season. There has been more free-flowing football off the back of some bold decisions by Peter V’landy’s after the first two rounds of the competition.
Another new process this year has seen the introduction of the captain’s challenge, with each team receiving one challenge per game – subject to the outcome of that first challenge.
The captains challenge has been a bit of a case of be careful what you wish for. The thinking behind it has some merit, the players are closest to the action and have a feel for the game. It is good to have the onus on them for a change, with plenty of questionable challenges demonstrating it is not the referees getting it wrong all the time.
What it has done is give us more of the bunker – certainly not what anyone wanted. In the line-ball cases it just means more time wasted on spooling through footage in slow motion, often to get the same decisions we got in the first place.
It seems the exact opposition of what the six again rule has tried and succeeded in, speeding the game up. It is also limited, with captains only able to challenge when there is a stoppage in play directly following a decision.
The issue that came up in the Panthers game was a challenge by the home side on a call of stripping. The ref blew a penalty for a strip, while the Panthers argued it was a loose carry. After reviewing the footage, the decision stood, on the basis that their wasn’t really enough evidence either way and in the same way the video ref works in try-scoring scenarios the decision reflects the referee’s opinion.
The fact was that really their wasn’t a great angle available, and certainly you couldn’t have conclusively said the Panthers did strip it. Consequently they were without a challenge for the rest of the game. It didn’t cost them but in a big game, with plenty of the match to go, you never know when the lack of a challenge might come back to haunt you.
If we are going to persevere with the challenge maybe a scenario needs to exist where inconclusive evidence is another basis for a team retaining their challenge, even if the decision is upheld, or otherwise upping the challenges for each team to one per half.
Ultimately the rule seems at odds with what we are trying to achieve. We are yet to see a challenge have a massive impact on a game and maybe we are best accepting that we can’t get all decisions right, something rugby league fans already struggle with.
Another issue with our new rules in the Battle of the West, was an incident with the Panthers leading 12-2 and deep on the attack. The Eels were penalised for markers no square a couple of metres out from their line and virtually in front.
In a rare incident, Clint Gutherson appealed that the call was incorrect and instead the Panthers should have been awarded six again and thus shouldn’t get a kick at goal that they had opted for from the penalty. He was right and Gerard Sutton changed the decision.
The six again rule is a straight swap for ruck infringements. It was made on the basis that it was a heavier penalty for teams trying to slow down the ruck, particularly while defending their own line. For the most part it works, but it also reflects the rule change that saw us have “seven tackle sets”, when the ball goes dead in goal.
That rule was supposed to deter teams from kicking the ball dead intentionally to get set starts rather than have fullback return the ball in broken play. But the rule now mean teams pay a big price for missing field goals and the like, probably an unnecessary byproduct of what was trying to be achieved.
The same applies with the six-again rule this year. We have been told that the ref has discretion to blow a full penalty and put a player in the bin for repeat infringements. That isn’t far from what we used to have with full penalties, except teams normally got a warning and miraculously cleaned up their discipline.
The six again doesn’t necessarily benefit a team that much. When a team is working it from their own line for example. To signal six-again early in the tackle count is barely an advantage to the attacking team, and the defensive team wouldn’t mind that at all.
The penalty should reflect what the infringing team would be most hindered by, in that case having the attacking team receive a full penalty and kicking for touch.
In the case of Friday night, it just tosses up some scenarios we could see in big games coming up with tighter margins. Every point can count but as it stands teams can infringe but not in a way that leads to a shot at goal. Of course the multiple infringement and sin-bin is a risk but late in a game and depending on the margin that could be a risk worth taking.
We previously only had the differential penalty as the only scenario where a penalty was awarded but a shot at goal couldn’t be taken.
The Panthers wanted the shot at goal on Friday for an infringement, recognising a 12-point lead was the best option for them. What the new rule has done is take that option away. A line from Peter Sterling is that when he was playing he would think about what the opposition wouldn’t want you doing.
It was obvious from Clint Gutherson’s reaction that he would far rather his team defend a set than concede two points. They would end up surviving that set, even if they lost the game, but in a different week it could have been very significant.
What the new rule does it take away that advantage of choice in certain situations. Particularly in close matches the two is much more important.
Take a scenario in a grand final as an extreme with one side up by 2. In years gone by, a ruck infringement could have meant a shot at goal and a chance to tie things up for the side trailing. The likes of Nathan Cleary, Adam Reynolds and Jarrod Croker in particular as the elite goal-kickers of our game would want to have a shot if they earned a penalty at a difficult angle or from a long way out.
Now a team can give away six-agains and slow down the play knowing that won’t eventuate unless they infringe multiple times.
Further what if a team needs to go the length of the field to win the game? The defensive team can infringe in the ruck without piggy-backing a team out of their end like years gone by.
It just takes time off the clock and the attacking team still needs to go the length, potentially with time an issue.
Well drilled team like the Storm and Roosters are going to back their defence in that situation and would live with the extra tackles going against them.
The new rules this season have provided some quality rugby league and have a place in our game moving forward. But our game has a history of knee-jerk reaction and blanket fixes.
The off-season will provide an opportunity to really think about the effects the likes of “six-again” and the captains challenge have had, and whether they work in all cases. I’m predicting that with the finals around the corner we will yet see some controversy with the new rules.