The NRL has been in a constant state of change over the past 30-plus years.
Long after the loss of the unlimited tackle set and the advent of the four-point try – rule changes that were intended to reward attacking play – the game was further impacted by a series of rule changes that in effect reduced the contest for possession.
In the 1980s, Ben Elias was an expert at raking in the play the ball. That was outlawed.
In the 1990s, Allan Langer was an absolute ball thief, so the stripping rule was brought it, albeit relaxed slightly with the one-on-one strip.
Let’s not even talk about the loss of contested scrums and the five-metre rule. Thanks Bill Harrigan!
Over the past two years, the attacking team has been further assisted with the six-again rule for offsides and slowing down the ruck, albeit selectively applied.
These, in addition to the high-tackle crackdown, is placing more pressure again on the defensive team. The result is defensive lines are increasingly passive in an effort to both complete the tackle and retreat to the defensive line.
With the sting taken out of defence and the margin between a good tackle and ten minutes in the bin minimal, the ability or willingness of the defensive team to impose themselves physically is diminished.
The result is an undoubtedly faster game, featuring less contested possession, which has been compounded by a more passive defensive approach to the game.
In short, teams can no longer attack through their defence. The only time we tend to see aggressive defence these days is when one team is pinned on their tryline and the defensive team compresses the defensive line to minimise yardage.
To be clear, the below changes are in no way intended to give a bad team a leg-up, they are about restoring the balance between attack and defence which has so heavily slanted one way.
The scoring team must kick off
This relatively easy one should be the least controversial.
I recall John Monie, as the inaugural coach of the Warriors in 1995, commenting then on how easy it had become for teams to dominate possession. That trend has certainly continued and fast forward to now and with the stronger yardage games, teams that receive the kick-off are routinely crossing halfway before they finish their set, allowing either an attacking play or an attacking kick.
This switch would have an immediate impact of improving parity of possession and no doubt the trailing team would continue to be tempted to try a short, contested kick-off to maintain possession.
Allow the two-on-one strip
The one-on-one strip is great, but let’s go one step further and allow a two-on-one strip, increasing the contest for possession and giving the defending team an opportunity to slow the momentum of the attacking team by attacking the ball.
Just as it is now, as soon as the attacking player hits the ground, the ball can’t be stolen and the onus would remain on the attacking team to protect the ball.
In terms of protecting the ball, well here goes something a little more controversial…
The ball to ground from an attacking team is a handover
Bear with me on this one.
Obviously, an exception here would be interference as the player stands to play the ball, but this admittedly significant change would remove much of the debate about whether the player knocked-on or back, whether a ball was dislodged deliberately or accidentally, or if the defender was playing at the ball in the tackle.
Very simply, if the ball is lost forwards or backwards before the tackle is complete, regardless of whether there’s a hand on the ball, or a stripping motion, or a loose carry, it’s a handover to the defending team.
The onus shifts entirely to the player with the ball to protect it.
This rewards the skilful ball-players, particularly the middle forwards who can make a pass before the line or give an offload to a supporting player.
For the defence, it gives opportunity to slow down yardage by attacking the ball. It would undoubtedly reduce scrappy play and certainly the doubt or debate around how the ball was lost.
The only time the ball would go to ground would be through kicks.
Importantly though, under this approach the attacking team would have to take clean possession. It would eliminate the bat back-back to ground and of course if the defensive team knocks-on, they concede six again.
Would these rule changes improve the game? Have we had enough change or does the game need to go further?