Last week I wrote an article explaining my views on how the administrators of rugby union were guilty of trying to fix a game that wasn’t broken and broke it.
Today, it’s league’s turn.
While it can be argued that there is little doubt rugby league has fared much better in the entertainment spectacle stakes, there has been a curious obsession for many years with making a fast game even faster. It is now played at breakneck speed.
But does faster necessarily mean better – or safer? Opinion is divided.
So just how did we wind up with this manic style we have today, in which even the players themselves find it difficult to keep up with, and in which teams often either enjoy a glut of possession or are starved of it from either not having the players capable to adjust to the sudden change or rules, or through constant six-again calls?
I’ve heard some commentators say: ‘commit the crime, do the time’, but it is not quite that simple. Most infringement calls of course, can be justified in some way, but it is hard to argue against the fact that rugby league penalties are often very subjective – even arbitrary.
Six-again calls can seem regular, whilst at the other end of the field, long, blatant holding downs can be ignored. Inconsistency is always an issue in rugby league, but unlike penalties, the quick nature in which six-agains are handed out means they are less scrutinised, and tallies in the game are not always easy to find.
This very subjective nature is just one argument for re-thinking the wisdom of introducing the six-again rule, which was after all, rushed through after a bit of fan feedback. In my opinion, it was short-sighted and a band-aid measure to try and deal with the singular issue of holding down/wrestling in tackles.
Little or no thought was given to its potential consequences or the root cause of holding down in tackles. This lack of consultation continued with the seemingly backward step of introducing a two-point field goal it taken from behind the 40-metre line.
Both these changes were brought in just before the 2021 season long after team rosters had been finalised and had some coaches scratching their heads. Canberra Raiders coach, Ricky Stuart, complained that had he known about them earlier, he would have built a different squad.
It came as no surprise when South Sydney’s Adam Reynolds became the first player in fifty years (since Souths’ Eric Simms) to earn a two-point field goal, as he is one of the few players in the game capable of confidently attempting such a feat.
So, what was ‘the root cause’ of wrestling in the tackle? The answer lies in the history of the ten-metre rule and coaches’ exploitation of it. The ten-metre rule was introduced in 1990 in an attempt to provide more space for attacking teams to be creative.
Did it work, or was it a case of fixing a game that wasn’t broken?
The 1980s was played under the five-metre rule (though teams were frequently kept back seven or eight) and is looked back upon as a golden age or rugby league, climaxing in the 1989 thriller between Canberra Raiders and Balmain Tigers.
Both the 1970s and 80s saw some of the most exciting and entertaining teams ever to grace a rugby league field.
Supporters of champion teams such as the Roosters, Manly-Warringah, Parramatta, and Canterbury-Bankstown and others from those times will all remember classic, thrilling games featuring superb skills and tries. So why was the new six-metre rule thought necessary and what was its impact?
As far as I can tell or remember, there were no startling immediate changes to the way the game was played, and the Premiers of the previous year – Canberra Raiders – won for the second year in a row in another grand final.
But over time, tactics did change. Canny coaches (or hookers) worked out that a cheap ten metres could be gained if a dummy half simply tucked the ball under his arm and ran at the defensive line – hardly creative!
In the years to follow, they had the realisation that if you played the ball quickly, you could catch the opposition back-peddling or offside.
At first, there were many errors from big, burly forwards attempting this, and there still are errors today. One tactic to counter this was more and more gang tackles driving the ball-carrier backwards, using defence as an attacking weapon.
But then there was holding down to enable the defence to set itself. I’m not sure this was altogether a new thing. I seem to remember hearing cries of ‘get ‘em on-side!’ and ‘get off ‘im!’ as far back as the days when peanut sellers roamed the hill of the Sydney Sports Ground, but wrestling was something new.
Quite naturally, defensive teams don’t want to be penalised. You could argue it’s only fair they be given a reasonable amount of time to get onside after making a tackle, and if they’re not, you can hardly blame them for wanting to slow down the play-the-ball.
In order to affect this legally, coaches started to employ wrestling coaches, leading to frustration among many fans.
Though, truth be told, the speed of the game had never been faster. Now, with the speed of the game so fast it’s even argued (or commented as a statement of fact) that teams cynically give penalties away on purpose in order to set their defence.
There is no proof of that, and I do find it difficult to believe that teams willingly give away such an advantage to the opposition. But if that’s how desperate things are getting, is rugby league on the right path?
Many would say ‘So what! If they can’t get onside that’s their problem!’ But is this quick play-the-ball style we see today really the creativity that the introduction of ten metres was meant to bring?
Is simply exploiting the rules in order to gain a penalty or make a player ineligible to make a tackle really making the game better even in the spirit of the game?
Many commentators now agree that the ten-metre rule is the reason we have wrestling, and a few have even toyed with the idea of experimenting going back to the five (or seven to eight) metre rule. Some instantly react against this, fearing the game would slow down and attackers would be swamped, but as I’ve alluded to, I really do think the game could do with a bit of slowing down.
Rather than manic quick-play-the-balls, we could have more creativity, perhaps see the return of attacking weapons such as the chip over the top. And given that attractive football was always played under the five-metre rule, there is no reason to think the game would go backwards.
Certainly players now are for the most part fitter and stronger to defend, but if attacking teams did feel they needed more space, they could simply line up deep in attack anyway. And under these rules, there wouldn’t be the need to bring on a small, fast player late in the game to beat the forwards who have run out of puff, which is another reason we have the six again rule – to help artificially create this situation.
Year after year there have been further tweaks to the rules which have frustrated the likes of me, who really can’t see their value. Most are meant to discourage kicking in attack (as if that’s not creative), but they haven’t stopped players doing it – merely causing them to adjust where they aim their kicks.
The seven-tackle re-start from a twenty-metre tap is a case in point. To me, it is an advantage that isn’t deserved. Kickers still kick anyway, and simply aim at the goal line and try not to let the defender take in on the full in their in-goal, or not kick the ball dead along the ground (which they would try to do anyway).
Yet not all twenty metre taps are the result of a kick, and if a team decides not to kick and loses the ball forward in the in-goal, they still give away seven tackles.
The introduction of the 40/20 rule some years back was one of the few new laws that I didn’t mind, but then they had to go and spoil it by virtually turning it into a penalty tap kick. And then they went completely bonkers and introduced the 20/40!
Another random, undeserved advantage! Some people think the slow phasing out of scrums and adding to player fatigue is a fantastic idea. I don’t.
It gives forwards a breather and playmakers a chance to plan their attack. And giving captains a choice where to pack a scrum when it does happen just seems loco to me and too like an NFL scrimmage.
Nor did I see the benefit of bringing scrums in twenty metres from the touch-line instead of ten. Some say the centres don’t play next to each other anymore, but there is no rule against it, and we certainly saw how deadly the NSW centre pairing were this year when combined together.
There will be many who disagree with some, if not all, I’ve said. There are many fans of the style of rugby league we have today who may think me a dinosaur. So what do you think? Did the administrators of rugby league go too far? Did they try to fix a game that wasn’t broken? Would they have been better stopping the need for wrestling rather than applying a quick-fix?
Speaking as I was of dinosaurs, I have deliberately not brought up the way in which high contact was dealt with this season as it was a subject that lent itself to a lot of hysteria and little logic. Certainly, reckless and deliberate actions need to be dealt with, but to imagine that accidental contact can always be avoided or is even sometimes not the defender’s fault is laughable. On that, we can only wait and see what the new season brings.
And on the subject of ‘seasons’ have a great one, and hope your team and the game itself brings you many memorable moments next year!