Final Whistle: Is the NRL’s latest rule change for the better?

IN RUGBY LEAGUE we always seem to be searching for the holy grail – a set of rules that will make the game perfect.

Every year, whether in Super League on the NRL, we tinker with the existing rules, usually in the hope of making the game more entertaining.

More recently we have started to focus on safety as well as entertainment value, particularly with regard to the permissible height of tackles.

But we are never satisfied and the rule changes accumulate year after year.

I sometimes wonder what the fans from the 1930s would think if they could be reincarnated and brought into the modern era. Would they even recognise the game that they supported almost 100 years ago?

I wrote about the changes to the tackle height in last month’s ‘Final Whistle’ column, for example, which focused on the rule changes proposed by the RFL as a response to what is now seen as an unacceptable number of head injuries in the modern game.

And what makes it even more complicated is the fact that the rule changes we make in the northern hemisphere often differ from the changes made in the south by the NRL.

That was illustrated by a press release issued by the NRL on 17 January.

“The NRL has confirmed a change to Law and Interpretations ahead of the 2024 NRL Pre-Season and Premiership,” said the press release.

“The change is designed to incentivise more contests for the ball from set restarts.”

The rule change is intended to incentivise contested restarts, presumably because the NRL has been stung by criticism from some quarters that there isn’t enough competition for possession in their competition.

So what does the NRL say?

“If a team kicks the ball out on the full over the touch line, or the ball fails to travel at least 10 metres forward in an attempt to contest a restart from the goal-line, 20m line, or half-way line, play will now restart with a play-the-ball 10 metres out from the line of the kick and 10 metres in from touch, rather than with a penalty kick. The change will give more incentive for teams to attempt short kick-offs or drop-outs.”

That strikes me as quite a fundamental change.

It means that the punishment for a player who kicks the ball out on the full, or who fails to kick the ball at least ten metres when re-starting the game, will no longer be to concede a penalty, which means that the player will be punished much less severely for demonstrating a basic lack of skill.

I’m all in favour of rule changes that reward greater skill.

But in this case the NRL appears to be reversing that process and is rewarding a lack of skill.

Do we really want to see that?

On the other hand, the rule change may produce other benefits, as the NRL’s Executive General Manager of Elite Football, Graham Annesley, has pointed out.

“While relatively minor, this change will add to the unpredictability of the game,” he is quoted as saying.

“Teams will no longer risk conceding significant territory as well as a penalty for attempting to regain possession from restarts of play.

“We undertook a thorough review of the 2023 season, including consultation with the NRL clubs, the RLPA and other stakeholders, and while there was a strong desire to keep changes to a minimum, this minor change will incentivise short kick-offs and drop-outs.

“This will strongly accompany the (ARL) Commission’s direction to enhance the existing rules, leading to a faster, more free-flowing and unpredictable game.”

The latter part of that quote gives the game away and it comes back to the holy grail I mentioned at the start of this article.

The NRL, like the RFL, appears to believe that if it can make the game faster and more free-flowing, then that will automatically make it more attractive.

But is there any evidence that speeding up the game draws in more spectators?

I’m not at all sure about that.

And I have some personal experience to support my contention.

Some years ago I was invited to the game that opened Salford’s new stadium. I found myself sitting at the same hospitality table as the director of a major publicly listed company.

He confirmed that he was attending his first ever rugby league game and he was looking forward to his first impression of our sport. And he added that the previous week he had been a guest of Sale Sharks, who then were using Stockport’s Edgeley Park as their home ground, and that had been his first experience of a live rugby union game.

I agreed to speak with him after the game to gauge his reaction to it and to compare it with his rugby union experience.

On doing so, he said that it was obvious after the first five minutes that the rugby league players were fitter and more skilful than their rugby union equivalents and the game was very much quicker.

Delighted to hear this, I remarked that he had obviously enjoyed the league game more than the union one.

Imagine my surprise when he contradicted me and said that he enjoyed the union game more.

The reason he gave was that the league game was so fast that he couldn’t focus on it and he couldn’t work out the roles of each player. In other words he didn’t know how to watch it.

When watching the union game, however, he recognised immediately that all the play emanated from the fly half. And if he watched that player from both sides, he could understand the way in which the game was unfolding.

He was clearly a very intelligent observer. But he couldn’t process how to watch rugby league.

That is a message that those in charge of the rules of the game should take on board.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)

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