In the NRL, there have always been good teams and poor teams. There have always been teams that are well managed and teams that are badly managed. There have always been teams that have been ‘lucky’ when it comes to injury and teams that haven’t.
With that in mind, why are we seeing results play out so differently on the field this year?
In Round 4, seven out of eight matches were decided by 13 points or more (and in some cases, significantly more). To date, only four games in 2021 have been ‘close’, being decided by fewer than six points.
After four rounds, there are three teams with differentials of less than 100: the Canterbury Bulldogs, Manly Sea Eagles and North Queensland Cowboys.
The last time a club had such a dismal differential after just four rounds was back in 2002, when the Cowboys had a differential of -126.
Is it just a coincidence that in 2021 we have four of the worst teams in NRL history competing or is there something more to it?
It’s not just deeply lopsided scorelines that have become a feature. Of more concern, so have injury and concussion.
Rugby league is a contact sport and in any sport, injury is inevitable. But what has changed this year is the number of injuries, particularly concussions.
According to the Twitter account NRL Physio , there were six concussions in Round 4, wherease the number of concussions per game seems to sit at an average of three and a half.
That means that after just four rounds, there have been 23 concussions. Should this rate continue, we will finish the season with over 150 concussions.
For context, the number has not risen above 100 for the last four years.
Again, some fans might suggest that the reason we are seeing more concussions is because the NRL, clubs and players are taking it more seriously. But is there something more to it?
All this information concerns me as a fan. I don’t watch for blowouts (unless the Parramatta Eels are the team winning) and I don’t like to see concussion after concussion after concussion.
At the moment, I don’t think we have enough data yet to know what is causing all of this. It is most likely a myriad of factors, including some woeful teams, a shorter off season, and some of the hastily-made rule changes that had the intention of keeping the ball in play longer and increasing the ‘speed’ of the game.
Player welfare should be central to the NRL. Certainly, player welfare has been at the heart of the increased work that the game has done around concussion over the last few years.
But after watching some of the quality of 2021 to date, what has been niggling away at me is why on Earth the decision was made to introduce these new rules, particularly if there was any chance they would contribute to more blowouts and increased fatigue, which can result in injury?
Was any thought given as to what the impact of the rule changes would be? Was there consideration as to whether it would lead to increased player fatigue? Did anyone think about whether it would make it harder for teams to stage a miraculous comeback? Was any analysis done as to whether they would expose the gap between good teams and bad teams so dramatically?
If that analysis was done, I would love to see the results. Because that’s what we should be making our decisions based on: hard data and evidence.
I strongly suspect though, that the rule changes were made in response to something else. Consider Peter V’landys’ comments when announcing the changes:
“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,” the ARLC chairman said.
“You’ve got to give the customer what they want. We want to attract new fans to our game and we want our current fans to keep coming back to watch games live at the ground or on TV. It was important to understand what they want.”
Broadcasters are key stakeholders in the game and they absolutely should have a say in what the game looks like.
But I don’t want them to have too much of a say and I certainly don’t want them to have too much power. In the end, the broadcasters aren’t really focused on making sure the product is at its best, they are focused on ratings – in a world where ratings will continue to decline as more people stream sport through other devices.
Incredibly, Channel Nine had a bumper year last year, yet still managed to get a discount on the NRL ratings when the new broadcast deal was announced. It’s clear the broadcaster has tremendous power.
I just worry what this power will lead to, particularly when we are seeing new rules hastily introduced that are potentially contributing to increased risk of injury for our players, more predictable results, and a wider chasm between the good, the bad and the ugly.