The balance between the top and bottom teams, attack and defence hasn’t been right in the NRL for a few years but from what we saw in Round 1, we may have finally got it just about right.
There are a number of factors at play but the combination of talent equalisation via the salary cap, the referees getting the balance right at the ruck (and policing the 10 metres) and some genuine improvement from last year’s bottom-eight teams which made for a round of close games and a few upsets.
In four or five of the games, the favourites got beaten and all the matches were close contests except for the one that we thought would be the closest – Penrith beating Manly 28-6 – and the biggest surprise of the round, Newcastle knocking over the Roosters 20-6 at the SCG.
The opening round has given a lot of the teams from the eight that missed the finals last year – and their fans – some real hope that their side will be better in 2022.
There’s always going to be a team at the top and someone coming last but you need to have hope that anyone can beat anyone on the day if they play well and for some teams over the past few years that hasn’t always been the case.
Brisbane, Canterbury, the Cowboys have been stuck in that zone but there were encouraging signs for those teams. St George Illawarra did better than a lot of people expected and the Wests Tigers even though they lost showed they will be willing to fight hard this year.
Canterbury centre Braidon Burns. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
You’re never going to eradicate blowouts but they’ve been a big problem, particularly the last couple of years with the six-again interpretations being brought in.
The teams that struggled last year have recruited well and we saw that in Round 1 with players like Kurt Capewell at the Broncos and Matt Burton at the Bulldogs already making a real difference to their sides.
We’ve seen so much talent change sides and it’s going to make a difference.
None of the teams that finished in the top six, who we pretty much all expect to be finals locks again this year, signed any marquee players and that will help spread the talent out in the competition this year. There is also the added pressure of the Redcliffe Dolphins arriving next year with a number of clubs (even Melbourne) struggling to hold on to their best talent.
The emphasis on defence and the wrestle was too great going back a few years and the past couple of years the pendulum has swung too far in favour of attack. The game got too fast from the changes introduced in 2020 and the reward for the attacking team was too high.
But I think the referees are now getting a good sense of the correct tempo for our game.
It started in the finals series last year – there were a few games like when Parramatta beat Penrith 8-6 that the speed of the game was still good but there wasn’t a constant stream of attack leading to tries.
With the new rules there’s been a lot of times over the past couple of years where the results have been a foregone conclusion well before full-time and it hasn’t been fun to watch when the game has been so lopsided.
The team that got the momentum early kept building on that and the other side was never able to get back in the contest.
There were some record ratings on the weekend and I think you can put that down to the games being close contests.
One of the main selling points behind State of Origin’s ongoing success is that there’s never any certainty over who’s going to win each game. There’s always that expectation that your team can do well in Origin and if you don’t have that in club footy, fans switch off.
The refs deserve a lot of credit. Last year, especially at the start of the year, the game went a bit crazy with too many penalties and six-again calls.
Most of the games in Round 1 had 12 penalties or less and if you look at the six-again scenarios, they haven’t disappeared totally but there were certainly way less than last year.
The referees are not getting involved as much and hammering teams with the six-agains.
NRL fans want the teams to sort out the result without the ref’s interpretations being a factor. Apart from the Eels v Titans game when Justin Holbrook gave the refs a spray, they put the whistle away unless they needed to and that added to the spectacle.
I think also the players now have a much greater recognition of what they can get away with and they know not to cross the line.
Refs are allowing that little bit extra time when a player is tackled on the ground and that added leniency has improved the contest. I don’t think it’s a bad thing when teams have earned that right with strong defence.
When the attacking team is on the front foot, the tackler should be ordered to get off the ball carrier as quickly as possible or get penalised for it. Unless that’s the case, you’ve got to give the defending team latitude to defend their line.
Last year, the six-again rule meant the teams that didn’t have the talent or the resolve of the top sides, didn’t have much of an opportunity to stay in the game.
(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
It’s hard to know if these trends will continue because a lot of the match-ups in Round 1 were teams who finished in similar positions last year apart from Broncos v Rabbitohs and Tigers v Storm but Brisbane upset Souths and Wests-Tigers were not too far away from a win against Melbourne.
The new rule that means a team gets a penalty instead of a six-again in their 40-metre zone didn’t have a major impact but it’s a positive step.
What I really like about the new interpretation is the team with the ball gets to boot it downfield and set up a play in good-ball position and the defensive side can get their defensive line set.
The changes in the concussion protocols meant some teams thought they were disadvantaged but it’s important for the game’s duty of care to protect the players.
Teams have to be able to handle those situations and try to generate their momentum again.
Whether it’s concussion or injuries in general, teams that have a squad mentality will do well this year. We saw it with the Roosters and their next man up mindset last season when they had a raft of injuries, you need to have depth in this day and age more than ever.
COVID has already caused a few late withdrawals at Brisbane and Canberra in the first couple of weeks but they have managed to get by. If you have someone who can come in and do a job even if they’re not a big name, that’s going to be huge in 2022. There was no better example of this than Sean O’Sullivan who had his best game of his NRL career against the Sea Eagles deputising for Nathan Cleary.
All in all, the season’s off to a good start. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.