Whenever a team wins the NRL premiership, the victorious coach is invariably asked whether they can go back to back and they always say they’re confident of defending their title.
What caught my eye in the opening round of the 2021 NRL season was the effect the new rules had on the game – or, in some cases, failed to have.
For what it’s worth, I’m in favour of the rules that rolled over from 2020.
The six-again rule and the ticking clock sped up the game and made for more compelling viewing, which has carried on into this year.
With that in mind, I enjoyed the expanded remit of the six-again into defensive infringements vis-à-vis ten metres. It accentuates the positives of rugby league – fast-flowing, uninterrupted action, open to creative displays – that allows for play to be active for greater proportions of the 80, while minimising the often-cumbersome penalty calls.
It may not be a coincidence that the introduction of this rule aligned with a plethora of larger-margin victories.
Defending sides had to deal with an onslaught of repeat sets without a break, which allowed attacks freer reign to chalk up the points.
The danger that this may result in more blowout games, which aren’t often as interesting as tighter games for the casual onlooker, undoes the receptive advantage conferred of continuous in-play sets.
But I’m optimistic that, just as defenders adjusted to retreating ten metres (as opposed to the customary five back in the day), these fine athletes will evolve to the new tactics, tempo and associated cardiovascular challenges.
In similar fashion, restarting with a handover in the middle instead of time-consuming and largely decorative scrums led to more in-match action.
However, there are other changes that did nothing but obfuscate the scoring system and basic tenets of the game.
I’m not quite sure anyone was clamouring for a two-point drop goal, and if that’s the case, then I’m almost certain less than nobody desired a 20-40 rule.
As far as I can ascertain, neither of these gimmicks came to fruition throughout the 360 minutes (don’t shoot me for not watching every game religiously), so it’s hard to know the effect on the viewing experience. But I can at least see the logic behind the 20-40, which offers the prospect of respite, switching the tables on an otherwise desperate situation, and rewards pinpoint kicking and taking your chances.
Maybe I need new glasses, or working from a laptop this past year has frazzled my eyes, but if the 20-40 is to persist, it should be necessary to make both 20m and 40m lines clearer. Thicker paint jobs for TV viewing, but also potentially corner-flag-style markers so that the kickers can better ascertain their surroundings and distances.
I have no idea what the new rules surrounding the play-the-ball or scrum (“break!”) are designed to achieve. It appears more of a legalistic cop-out to those demanding the consistent and literal interpretation of seemingly inconsequential rules of infinitesimally minor aspects of the game.
Which I suppose cuts to the crux of the matter. As fans of the sport, we all want different things. If all the rules were interpreted the same, if we all wanted the same outcomes and desired the same style, rugby league – and life in general – would be pretty dull.
Rugby league is not cricket, with its laws and binary officialdom (on that note, I like how the Captain’s Challenge can be retained even if the decision is not overturned, noting the various shades of grey and doubt behind decision making that even cricket’s third umpire acknowledges).
Even if NRL HQ come out with some occasionally wacky ideas, I’d much prefer to have an administration proactively seeking to improve the game. It’s what we’ve been doing for the past 125 years.
Long may the changes continue and may our chirping never cease.