I well remember the 1980s, when great kickers like Wally Lewis and Peter Sterling mastered the art of the boot, sending the ball downfield with pinpoint precision to find touch.
In the 1990s, the art was refined even further by legends such as Ricky Stuart and Andrew Johns, their long raking kicks rolling over the sideline to gain big metres and a little respite for the big men.
And like all rugby league fans of the era, I remember watching these booted wizards ply their trade and thinking, ‘How revolting’.
For even as a youngster I understood that the art of kicking for touch was a foul blight on the game that held it back from becoming a truly great sport.
Every time Lewis or Sterling or Stuart or even, heaven help us, Craig Coleman found touch with an inch-perfect punt, my stomach heaved and my soul rebelled at this perversion of rugby league’s noble spirit.
Wayne Pearce played with and against those great kickers, so it’s no wonder it was he who came up with the excellent idea of punishing anyone who kicks the ball into touch with a seven-tackle set to the opposing team.
And it is obviously very sad that, for now at least, the NRL has decided not to trial the new rule. Indeed, it’s sad that they didn’t go further and ban kicking for touch entirely. We live in hope that the idea will be given life in the not too distant future.
But that doesn’t mean that Pearce, or indeed anyone who cares about the future of the NRL, should give up on constantly trying to improve the game.
After all, the lifeblood of rugby league is its fans, and the most fervent desire of fans is that league should be agile and versatile at all times.
As such, if the discouragement of touch-finding hasn’t found favour just yet, here are a few more suggestions as to how rugby league can be improved in the near future. If the committee signs off on these, they can be put into practice hopefully as soon as next week.
1. Ban offloads
The reason that Pearce’s idea was so exciting – just like the end of of contested scrums, prohibition on markers striking in the play-the-ball, and so forth – was that it would remove a skill from the game.
In general this should be the aim of all rule-makers: to streamline the sport by reducing to the bare minimum the number of skills that players are able to demonstrate.
Rugby league is a game of running, passing, and tackling. It is not a game of passing-while-being-tackled.
Offloads slow the game down by making everyone sit around and wait while the tackled player gets an arm free, and detract from the spectacle of rugby league as it was meant to be played: players running into tacklers, playing the ball, and repeating the process.
The game will be far faster and more attractive without them.
2. Ban markers
Why is it that, with the very sensible ten-metre rule in place, we for some reason grant exemptions to two defenders, who are allowed to stand right in front of the play-the-ball?
What on earth is the justification for allowing two members of the defending team to encroach within the ten metres?
The presence of markers means that when the dummy-half runs, they are often confronted by tacklers almost immediately – dreadfully unfair.
If we get rid of markers, requiring all defenders to retreat the full ten metres before any involvement in play, we will open up more opportunities for dummy-half running, i.e. rugby league in its purest form.
We will also cut down on the necessity for the dummy half to pass the ball, which increases the risk of handling errors, which slow the game down and make for an unpleasant viewing experience for the spectator.
More room for dummy-halves = more dummy-half runs = a faster game with fewer mistakes = happy fans!
3. Ban cut-out passes
Not only do cut-out passes travel further than other passes, making them more prone to misdirection and therefore errors, slowing the game down and making everything messy.
They are also essentially a form of cheating, as they do not allow defences to know with any reliability who the next pass is going to. For the sake of fairness as well as game neatness, they have to go.
4. Ban high kicks
The so-called ‘bomb’ has been spoiling our game since the 1970s. These days not a single game is played that isn’t slowed down horribly while we all wait for these ugly kicks to come down from the heavens.
It’s time to cut these interminable waits out of the game: no kick to be allowed that ascends higher than the kicker’s own head. Let’s get this game moving, for goodness’ sake!
5. Next score wins
In order to make games closer and therefore more entertaining, the referee will have discretion, should the margin grow too large, at any time during a game to declare ‘next score wins’, thus injecting tension and excitement into the contest.
These are just suggestions, and no doubt the NRL has plenty of ideas of its own. Whatever rule changes they go with, the important thing is that they do keep changing.
Don’t let the rules stagnate, don’t let the game settle into a boring routine.
Keep changing the rules, keep changing the game, keep the players constantly off-balance, make sure that nobody ever knows from week to week what rules they’re playing by.
It’s called ‘keeping things fresh’. It’s the greatest weapon rugby league has in its arsenal.