One referee, the new six-again rule, fake crowd noise.
There was a lot to get used to as the NRL ended its 67-day hiatus over the weekend, and by and large, fans loved it, including Raiders coach Ricky Stuart.
Often a vocal critic of the whistleblowers, the Canberra boss gave two thumbs up to the new six-again rule, where referees simply restart the tackle count rather than blow a time-sapping penalty for ruck infringements, as well as reverting to a sole on-field official for the first time since 2008.
“It was a little bit back to the old days where we saw a lot of attack, second-phase football, and the talented, skilful players really had a great opportunity,” Stuart said.
“I was really losing faith in the game. I was getting annoyed watching Rugby League because I thought there was just too much mess in the collision.
“If that’s the theme now, I think you’re going to see a very, very open, smart game of football. And that’s the product we want.
“I feel very comfortable as a coach in the NRL now, having a leader (ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys) who is supporting referees and supporting players.”
Canberra, whose first two tries in their impressive 22-6 rout of Melbourne on Saturday came on the back of six-again rulings, are perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of these changes thanks to their raft of English imports.
George Williams and Josh Hodgson, in particular, ran amok against the Storm, exploiting the game’s quicker pace with their creative, instinctive style. It was a thrill for Australian fans jaded by the NRL’s highly organised, more robotic structure.
“We were pretty lucky that we played Saturday, so the Thursday and Friday games we got to watch, and see what it was like,” Hodgson said.
“There was certainly a lot of rugby on the front foot, and a lot of it is ad-lib, so I certainly think it suits our style. With George [Williams] and Jack [Wighton], we’ve got great running games and we’ve got great strikes on the edge.”
Like the record-breaking audiences glued to their TVs, man-of-the-match Williams was just happy to resume the season after ten weeks in lockdown.
“I’m over the moon,” he said.
“Peter V’landys and everyone involved has done a great job to get us back on the park. We love playing rugby, and we’re back, so happy days.”
Viewers were treated to fake crowd noise in the broadcast, which was another innovation that fans received warmly.
A team of sound engineers synthesised audio from previous matches at the respective grounds, and varied the pitch and volume depending on the teams involved. For example, the Eels’ six tries in Thursday’s season re-opener in Brisbane were met with a quieter roar than the home-town Broncos’ solitary score.
Parramatta and Hull FC legend turned commentator Peter Sterling overcame his hesitation towards the canned atmosphere, especially as the thwack of body contact came through loud and clear.
“In weeks to come, I don’t think that it will even be on our radar that it’s happening,” Sterling said.
“The closer we can simulate our contest to what it normally is, the better. I’m not sure about the crowd noise – I really like it when the sound effects are turned up and you’re getting the sound of the contact and the physicality of our game coming through – that really, to me, is the most appealing part of the game.
“Down the track, if crowds aren’t coming back, this will suffice until that happens. But I like the sound of our game coming through, and I think the fans at home really enjoy that as well.”
Of course, the only faces in the stands last weekend were the cardboard cut-outs supporters could buy of themselves for $22 (£12).
Under-siege Dominic Cummings even made an appearance at Sydney’s Bankwest Stadium – some 10,000 miles further from London than Barnard Castle – thanks to one tongue-in-cheek punter.
However, Peter V’landys is eager to bring back real crowds by July.
He was mocked by rival codes when he revealed his ambitious plan to resume the NRL by May 28. But V’landys had the last laugh on Thursday, and as Australia’s number of coronavirus cases slows to a trickle, filling stadia is his next bold target.
“We’re not Italy, we’re not Spain, we’re not Britain – we’re Australia,” V’landys said.
“If the risk is low to minimal, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have crowds. We’ve got to get back to some form of normality.
“People will be kept apart 1.5 metres. In a stadium that might fit 50 or 60,000 people, you might get 10,000 people.
“We’ll have pretty harsh biosecurity measures. We’ll have thermal cameras taking everyone’s temperatures.
“If the risk is minimal, I can’t see any reason why we can’t do it. We’ll be pushing our case with governments in the next two to three weeks once we have this data.”
Words: Tom Smith