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Does the NRL have any idea how to manage change?

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Roar Guru
15th December, 2020

Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys recently announced a number of rule changes to take effect from the start of next year.

Like many others, I wanted to know more about the specifics of these changes, so I went looking, mostly on What I found caused me to question whether the NRL has any notion of good change management.

There are some simple steps that should be followed when making changes and I want to work through what these are and what Vlandy’s and Andrew Abdo have to say about them.

Step 1 – identify the need for change(s)
This was neatly covered by Peter V’landys when he said, “The message from the fans and our broadcasters has been clear – the game became too predictable and the balance between attack and defence had gone too far in favour of defence.”

There’s an immediate problem with the process: the NRL appears to want to make rule changes based on fan reaction, but also based on the desires of the broadcasters. Why do the broadcasters get a say in what changes should be made? Who in the broadcast ranks did the NRL talk with? Phil Gould?

Phil 'Gus' Gould

Phil Gould. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The NRL also gained its fan input from those who held an account and who bothered to complete a survey. I’ve no idea how many people that represents, but that was the extent of the people “consultation”.

Step 2 – come up with suggested changes
The NRL based these rule changes on recommendations from an innovation committee. Members of that committee included Wayne Pearce, Peter V’landys, Graham Annesley, Craig Bellamy, Ricky Stuart, Matt Cecchin, Luke Keary and Damien Cook.


This is a very capable and experienced group of rugby league administrators, referees and players, so it’s safe to assume they felt the changes they proposed met the questionable brief of taking “the element of unpredictability and entertainment a step further.”

Step 3 – conduct a risk management analysis
This is a critical step in any change and there are a variety of ways to evaluate the risk of making changes. In years gone by, the NRL would suggest rule changes, then try them out in pre-season trial games. That will apparently not happen with these changes, presumably because there’s likely to be only one pre-season trial game in 2021.

The only comments related to this came from Abdo who said, “The outcome, we think – it’s going to add to our game on a net basis.”

We think?

In other words, based on the experience of those who recommended the changes, the NRL is guessing the changes will benefit the game overall. And a net gain implies one or more change will harm the current game.

Part of the risk analysis in this instance should involve medical staff. Again, a quote from Andrew Abdo: “The fans want free-flowing football and faster action, within reason.”

Acting NRL Chief Executive Officer Andrew Abdo

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

I don’t think many would disagree with this, but with faster action comes increased fatigue and with increased fatigue comes an increased chance of injury. It does not appear the NRL has taken this into account when making these changes.

Step 4 – implement the changes
This is probably the easiest stage of the process, and no doubt coaches will be busily working with their squads on how these new rules will work, as well as devising ways to make these changes work for them.

Step 5 – review the changes
The only comment I could find about another critical part of the process came from Abdo, who said, “If some of the changes don’t work, we’ll be the first to review it.”

This sums up just how badly the NRL will manage this change.

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They don’t appear to have any timetable for monitoring the effectiveness of these rule changes, nor do they have any mechanism for deciding if they’re working or not. Presumably they’ll do another people survey or ask the broadcaster what they think.

The two issues that are not addressed at all by the NRL is whether player health will be compromised by these changes and whether the quality of both the football and the viewing experience will improve.

Once again Abdo glossed over player health with the comment, “We have to be cognisant of the overall player welfare issue and speed of the game, which is why we didn’t consider reducing the interchange.

“I think there’s an ebb and flow. There will be natural stoppages and breaks.”

The other factors previously mentioned are equally important. I don’t want to watch a game of touch football style rugby league, I want to watch teams producing quality attack and defence. In the same vein, I don’t want to have my viewing pleasure spoiled because of an ill-considered rule change, most notably the bunker.

Right now, I have no idea whether these changes are going to be a success or failure, but then again neither does Peter V’landys or Andrew Abdo. Unfortunately, a sport I thoroughly enjoy could be harmed, because those in charge have no idea how to manage a very simple process.