The pendulum of rugby league has always swung between revolution and evolution.
League’s origins were borne out of revolution but for the most part it has been an evolving sport which has gradually changed its rules without a radical shift in the on-field aesthetics.
The new rules that have been trotted out over the past couple of seasons have been closer to revolutionary than part of the sport’s natural evolution.
From unlimited tackles, to the four-tackle rule then six tackles a few years after, rugby league has not been stagnant but it’s never seen anything close to the amount of tweaks, interpretations and downright totally new rules that have been brought in since the two-month pandemic shutdown at the start of 2020.
The raft of new rules of recent times has triggered the most dramatic differences to the style of play since the tinkering of the interchange rules in the 1990s.
That decade started with substitutes being used sparingly, then teams were allowed to use four players in six in-game swaps and then all of a sudden, it was a free-for-all when unlimited interchange was introduced.
Players got bigger and scorelines rapidly increased, which was also due to the accelerated expansion in the number of teams that resulted in many journeymen and long-term reserve-graders suddenly getting regular game time to fill out first-grade line-ups.
Soon enough the interchange rules were curtailed to become a maximum of 12, then 10 and in recent years, eight, to bring fatigue – physical and mental – back into the 80-minute contest. Another sustained period of evolution.
Prior to the 1990s interchange upheaval, the previous decade was dominated by defence (a 4-2 grand final like the 1986 slugfest is a score line that only should be seen in another football code).
The pendulum had also moseyed on back too much in the other direction in the 2010s, eventually prompting the changes which were also unabashedly constructed to make the sport a more entertaining and therefore more valuable product.
And it wasn’t just about defence. The game had become bogged down in the ruckus around the ruck – wrestling, grappling, gang tackles, deliberately holding a player down or even keeping them up on their feet if you can entangle yourself enough around their torso. Anything that could prevent a quick play-the-ball.
The empire of the state struck back in the form of referees cracking down on ruck muckers and their rucking dirty tactics.
Evolution was again taking effect.
As is always the case when authority flexes its muscle, there was an outcry from the supposedly oppressed – players, coaches and everyone with a vested interest in keeping ruck wrestling in vogue were up in arms, when they weren’t using them to execute their latest borderline defensive technique.
It was time to find common ground.
The players had been put on notice that the whistleblowers were not going to tolerate their disregard for the rules in slowing down the play-the-ball. It looked like rugby league could settle into an even-paced rhythm.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
From left field, the six-again rule and decision to revert to one referee caught everyone outside of the Project Apollo committee off guard.
The switch to one referee was tipped to have major ramifications. But it did not. In the grand scheme of things, it did not seem to make much of a difference, which when it comes to refereeing is about as good as you can get.
Being noticed is the antithesis of success for a whistleblower, unless of course you were Bill Harrigan who could juggle getting attention with controlling a game in equal measure.
The radical six-again rule for restarting attacking sets meant you could roll with one ref monitoring the ruck from 10 metres away, safe in the knowledge that players couldn’t argue the decision because they had a more immediate concern of making the next tackle.
And then another five after that.
The six-again parameters were widened last season so that players could have many more reasons to avoid giving away penalties.
There were fewer scrums, meaning the ball was in play much more.
The intended consequences were obvious – faster games, fewer stoppages, more free-flowing attacking play.
However, the unintended consequences were just as impactful, particularly the increase in blow-out scorelines.
Coaches never stop looking for an edge. They instructed their players to exploit the new rule book – a fresh challenge for some of them who mastered the dark arts of manipulating the ruck regulations in particular.
The most obvious tactic was giving away six-agains when the opposition was carting the ball out from their own end.
And who could blame them? Call a set restart, play rolls on and even the television producer, usually always so eager to roll back the tape to highlight an officiating error, was too busy looking ahead to the next passage of play to worry about whether the right call was made.
Now the response is to make it a penalty for the 2022 season rather than a six-again call within the 40-metre zone coming out from your goal line.
Referees will need to be proactive with this tweak to the rules – teams will try to get away with as much as they can, particularly during the trials and the early rounds of the season to see how far they can hold a tackled player down.
Intended or otherwise, the new suite of rules have had a sour end for one of rugby league’s great survivors – the roly poly forward.
Even in the virtually uncontested scrums era of the past three or four decades, most teams would have a player or two in their pack who was carrying a few extra kilos to act as a buffering device for the relentless physicality of their thankless role. Or a cult hero who was great to bring sudden impact off the bench in short spurts.
But the big bopper carrying a bit of extra beef is a dying breed and is now all but extinct under the new playing conditions – all the forwards now look like they’ve been chiselled by the same sculptor.
Some of the NRL’s best cult heroes in the modern era have been big blokes who didn’t necessarily get their strength from the weights room, rather they made room in opposition defensive lines with their weight, such as Mark Tookey, George Rose, Mark Riddell, Sam Kasiano, Andrew Fifita and Blake Lawrie.
Props masquerading in the No.13 jersey as locks when they were effectively just a third middle-forward monster are becoming few and far between.
The rise of smaller players such as Cameron Murray, Victor Radley, Cameron McInnes and Brandon Smith in the lock’s role will only become more common.
Basketball has gone through a “small-ball” era where its biggest players have been replaced by less beefy, more skilful counterparts and it is now rugby league’s turn.
As is the case with pretty much everything in this sport, when rules are changed it is a source of endless debate.
Change-averse critics will be calling for a return of the former status quo while the rusted-on tragics won’t particularly care as long as it favours their team – they see nothing but beauty in the eyes of the game they behold.
Irrespective of whether the new rules will turn out in the long run to be good, bad or otherwise, it’s yet another step in revolutionary rugby league’s evolution.
And of course the coaches will look to exploit whatever loopholes they can find.