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NRL needs to tread carefully with fans about ongoing rule changes

Referee Ashley Klein speaks to Tevita Pangai Junior of the Panthers as Will Smith and Isaiah Papali'i of the Eels watch on. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)
Expert
23rd December, 2021
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1590 Reads

The last thing the NRL needs is more rule changes but they’ve put themselves in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” position with the fans after the flurry of different rules over the past two years.

They won’t backtrack on their innovations but the six-again rule is clearly being exploited so there needs to be changes made to stop teams deliberately using the lack of traditional penalties to their advantage.

The NRL is yet to officially announce it but in 2022 it is set to revert to an old-fashioned penalty with a kick for touch instead of a six-again call if teams make an infringement on the opposition when the other team is coming out of their own 40-metre zone.

Then of course coaches will exploit the six-again rules a different way.

This adjustment to the rule is a step in the right direction but the punishment for a six-again infringement is so much less than a traditional penalty that teams will continue to deliberately give them away elsewhere on the field if all it means is they’re defensive set is extended by an extra play or two or three, or at the most six.

Players are so fit these days and they train all off-season for the scenario of defending for back-to-back sets and then some.

The six-again rule was being exploited so much over the past two seasons that it got to a stage that whenever a team gained possession, the defender making the first tackle would almost automatically lie on his opponent like a dead weight until the referee yelled at him to move.

Even then they were slow to peel off the tackled player knowing that a six-again call would only add one more play to the set.

When you compare that minimal punishment against the advantage they’d receive of slowing the opposition’s attacking set from the first play, it was obvious to the smart coaches that defenders could, and should, push the envelope.

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The incoming tweak to the rule to give proper penalties in a team’s 40-metre territory will reduce this blatant cheating but it won’t stop it altogether.

It’s not hard to see how some fans have struggled to keep up with all the new rules such as 20/40 kicks, two-point field goal, 18th player provisions, the positioning of scrums, captain’s challenges and when Bunker reviews are done.

The NRL has made a rod for its own back now and they can’t win either way – if they introduce new rules, the rusted-on supporters will be up in arms about the game moving further away from its traditional structures but if they do nothing, then coaches will continue to work the margins.

It’s no coincidence that Penrith conceded the most set restarts in 2021 as they marched to their first title in 18 years and minor premiers Melbourne were also one of the main offenders.

Last month when they were foreshadowing its next change to the rules, the NRL pointed to the results from a fans poll on its website of more than 23,000 voters indicated 65% thought the speed of the game was just right and that 54% thought the six-again concept was a positive addition to the game.

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What wasn’t highlighted was that the six-again rule’s popularity has dropped significantly – in the same poll the previous year when the concept was in its honeymoon stage, 82% of the fans gave it the thumbs-up.

It remains to be seen whether the NRL will put it to a fan vote next year but if the popularity continues to drop, especially by another 28%, will that mean they change the rules yet again?

Like politicians who come up with policy on the run depending on what the polls say, it can be a double-edged sword when you are constantly bending to the whim of public opinion.

Wayne Pearce floated an idea without consulting the rest of the ARL Commission in August when he said he wouldn’t mind seeing all kicks that find touch would result in a seven-tackle set. His idea was to encourage more ball in play – it wasn’t the worst idea but the timing was poor after all the recent rule changes that were seemingly apropos of nothing. The backlash was severe and the league quickly made it known that this would not be happening.

Storm prop Christian Welch spoke on behalf of the players and the fans when he tweeted in response: “Please just leave our game alone. The tension, grind, pressure & game management almost already gone. Would love the commission for less gimmicking with the rules & more focus on bigger picture strategy.”

Some dyed-in-the-wool supporters and dinosaur media commentators arc up if you dare make the slightest of changes but most rugby league fans don’t mind a tweak here or there if it improves the overall product.

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Administrators need to always bear in mind that professional sport’s lifeblood is TV rights and they must ensure the product they’re selling is worth buying.

Rugby league had become too stagnant with wrestling tactics and slow play a few years ago when teams like the 2016 Sharks and 2017 Storm grappled their way to trophies by using strongarm tactics in the middle of the ruck.

Welch’s comments summed it up for the wider rugby league fan base – they are worried about the DNA of rugby league being phased out with all the recent rule changes.

If the innovations make the game seem like touch footy, American football or even heaven forbid, the sworn enemy of rugby union, then crowds will drop and ratings will plummet.

But if the on-field action passes the eye test and remains entertaining and at its core, true to the sport’s fabric of a tough, physical but skilful contest based on endurance, then rule changes will not only be tolerated but embraced.

After all, rugby league was founded with a massive rule change, going from 15 players to 13.

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