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Screwing over the man: How teams will pervert the new rule changes

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Expert
3rd March, 2021
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Just when what we were all wishing for was a return to normal in 2021, the NRL throw a set of rule changes at us.

Graham Annesley, fresh from surviving the drastic slimming down at NRL HQ, has announced eight shifts to keep us all on our toes.

The NRL’s public mouthpiece – also referred to in some circles as NRL head of football elite competitions – wants us to know that these changes are all about “minimising stoppages, increasing the amount of time the ball is in play, increasing the fatigue factor, trying to open up some spaces on the field and making the game more exciting and entertaining to watch.”

Those are some impressive goals indeed and, should they pull off even 50 per cent of those intentions, I’ll be the first to give them kudos.

While recent changes – like the six-again introduced last year – haven’t been complete successes, they also haven’t been total failures.

It should be noted that Des Hasler was able to get the Sea Eagles from 15th in 2018 to sixth in 2019 when he got his charges to use his circa 2013 tactics to cheat their arses off to defend their line, but once Annesley brought in the six-again rule they plummeted back to 13th in 2020.

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However, it is a coach’s job to push the rules right to the limit to get all of the advantage they possibly can, no matter how cynical or negative it might be. Coaches whose sides lose in an entertaining manner don’t last long.

The key word in ‘winning ugly’ is ‘winning’ and coaches detest excitement. Every one of them would gladly choose a win each week that bores the pants off the crowds. There is little excitement to be had in ‘Bellamy ball’s’ notorious wrestling tactics, but its success can not be denied.

Every coach will be examining the eight new rules from the perspective of how their team can gain advantage from them or blunt them. And not one moment’s care will be given in regard to the provision of excitement or entertainment.

It appears that the NRL even realised this and has hired North Sydney Bears legend David Fairleigh to help new referees boss Jared Maxwell to combat teams trying to take advantage of the changes.

Apparently Fairleigh will provide an insight into the way coaches and players may seek to exploit the new rules. But here’s the thing, Fairleigh was a clean player with little to no cheat in him at all.

To catch a cheat you should hire a cheat, right?

Cameron Smith

This photo is inserted with absolutely no editorial comment attached. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

So let’s try to help ‘Daisy’ by looking at these eight new rules, work out just how they might be perverted by teams, and evaluate whether they are a good idea.

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We’ll start with the more workable ones and work our way through.

New Rule 1

When a captain’s challenge is inconclusive, a team will not be docked for an unsuccessful attempt.

How the rule will be manipulated
I’m not sure this one can be warped for nefarious intent.

New rule rating: Distinction
The purpose of challenges is to overturn howlers. Keeping a challenge when something is inconclusive is a good idea.

New Rule 2

The Bunker will now review replays after an on-field referee awards a try but a conversion attempt will not be allowed until it gets the green light.

How it will be manipulated
Well, this is just a return to reviewing everything. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of it. But it is neither speedy nor exciting.

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New rule rating: Credit
Whether people like it or not, when we have 16 Ultra HD cameras capturing the action, you’ve got to use them to get the calls right. It is just inevitable and logical.

New Rule 3

Replacing scrums with a play-the-ball when the ball or ball carrier go into touch

How it will be manipulated
This rule is probably meant to challenge the defending side. However, there are plenty of times that the side getting possession will be in absolutely no hurry to get the ball back into play and will find all sorts of ways to delay, like not getting back quickly to play the ball, not retrieving or getting the ball, finding a way to get two balls on the field, trying to do the play the ball well in front of the mark so it has to be taken back to the correct place…

New rule rating: Credit
As long as the team is made to perform the play the ball quickly, this can actually be an attacking weapon for the kicking team, who can take advantage of a tiring opposition and apply some offensive defence to gain field position. And of course there will be times when this rule really does speed things up.

Warriors and Bulldogs players scrum

(Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

New Rule 4

Six-again to be called for ten-metre infringements instead of a penalty.

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How the rule will be manipulated
Sometimes it is distinctly to a side’s advantage to give away six more tackles instead of a penalty. For example, there are 30 seconds to go in the game and your side is up by two points, defending their line. A penalty could deliver your opponent two points and golden-point extra time, whereas more tackles may yield nothing at all.

New rule rating: Pass
While there are circumstances where a side should be able to choose a penalty instead of an instant six more, there are plenty of others where six more is spot on.

New Rule 5

Two-point long-range field goals.

How this rule will be manipulated
Here’s what will happen: teams will get to the attacking 20, the field-goal expert will be stationed just behind the 40, and the ball will be delivered to him a la a goal kicker in the NFL.

Because they are so deep, defenders will not be able to get to them without giving away a penalty far closer to the sticks. A good proponent of the field goal will nail lots of them at two points a pop.

New rule rating: Fail
This is neither exciting nor entertaining. Rabbitohs legend Eric Simms once booted five in a game against the Panthers in 1969. Shortly afterwards, field goals were reduced to one point because we don’t go to the footy to see a bloke do drop kicks all day. Go to the rah-rahs if you want that tripe.

New Rule 6

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A penalty to be awarded if a player leaves the scrum before the referee calls “break”.

How it will be manipulated
Right now, across all 16 clubs, players are learning to impersonate Gerry Sutton, Ash Klein, Grant Atkins, Ben Cummins, Chris Sutton and the other whistle blowers.

There is only one word they need to mimic: “OUT!” Their scrum will hold the ball in and the designated mimic will yell it out to dupe their opponents into breaking early and conceding a penalty.

While it will be amusing and will fail far more than it will work, you can guarantee this tactic will be used.

New rule rating: Fail
The refs have always been able to blow a penalty for this offence, they just haven’t been doing it.

New Rule 7

A handover to be ordered when a player does not make a genuine attempt to play the ball correctly with their foot.

How this will be manipulated
As with the scrum breaking, loudmouth players will constantly be drawing the now-lone ref’s attention to the player’s feet and away from checking offside.

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New rule rating: Fail
The referees can already give a penalty for this. All this does is place more pressure on the ref and deny the team getting the ball a touch finder to get better field position.

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New Rule 8

Injured players to leave the field for two minutes if a trainer stops play.

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How it will be manipulated
This doesn’t stop trainers from calling for a halt in the play, there is just the cost of an interchange added when they do it.

There are plenty of situations where a coach would gladly use an interchange to halt opposition momentum. As they have for a decade now under the operations management of Nathan McGuirk – who somehow survived the NRL downsizing in spite of his ignoring of repeated warnings for years about the risks of on-field trainers – trainers will continue to be involved on fields in a way all of the world’s biggest sports – soccer, grid iron, baseball, basketball, cricket – would never consider as vaguely acceptable.

The no-brainer way to manage trainers is to just get them off the field. Full stop.

New rule rating: Dismal fail
A pathetic waste of time that is easily manipulated. Just get the trainers off the field you mouth-breathing morons.