Is Rugby League getting too structured?

Rugby League Express editor MARTYN SADLER asks whether Rugby League is in danger of losing some of its spontaneity.

For the first time in the NRL’s history its officials have collated data demonstrating changes in the way the game has been played since 2004, while projecting what the game may look like in 2024 if current trends continue unchecked.

Their object is to determine whether they need to intervene to alter the trends that have led to a reduction in the number of tries, line breaks and offloads against defences that have become better organised in that time.

The leading NRL coaches and other officials have all come together to debate where the game is going, and I think that is a laudable development. I think the Australian game is discarding flair for strength and toughness, with bigger and bigger players, and less and less unpredictability.

The result is a game that becomes far too structured to be genuinely enjoyable.

This year I found the second State of Origin match to be the least inspiring Origin game I’ve seen for that reason.

Master coach Wayne Bennett pointed out at the NRL meeting that not only had tries decreased from an average of 8.4 per game in 2004 to 7.3 this season, and line breaks fallen even more significantly, but there were some matches that featured no line breaks and the only tries were scored from kicks or a player barging over close to the line.

If left unchecked, it is predicted that tries per game could drop to 5.7 and line breaks to 5.4 within a decade.

The shift towards defence is caused by a doubling of the time – from 13 hours a week to 30 – that players now train, along with technological advances, an increase in coaching staff from nine to 23 at some clubs and the increased size, strength and fitness of players, who are now full-time athletes.

The average weight of players has increased by more than 10 per cent over ten years.

Under coaches like Michael Maguire, formerly of Wigan and now of South Sydney, an emphasis on ferocious defence has been brilliantly effective for winning trophies, but less so for those of us who want to see more open play. Inevitably we see the same trends in Super League that we are seeing in the NRL.

So it’s a debate that I hope won’t only happen in the NRL.

And it isn’t just a debate for the coaches, but for everyone who has the interests of Rugby League at heart. If games can be won by power alone, Rugby League will lose the thing that attracts us to it in the first place. That’s a warning that all our officials need to be aware of.

Martyn Sadler writes his ‘Talking Rugby League‘ column every Monday in Rugby League Express