Should we follow the NRL’s example?

League Express editor MARTYN SADLER warns against a rush by Super League to copy the recent innovations in the NRL

So it looks as though we are going to introduce the ‘six again’ rule when Rugby League returns, probably some time in mid-August.

The RFL Laws Committee members have clearly liked what they have seen in the NRL games that have been played since the game came out of Covid hibernation on 28 May.

I’ve also enjoyed watching those NRL games, which in my view have been a big improvement on the games we saw in the first two rounds of the NRL season.

But would the ‘six again’ rule be a good one for us to adopt in our competitions?

I’m not convinced that it would be, at least for the remainder of our season.

The RFL, in its press release after the recent meeting of the RFL Laws Committee, gave the following justification for introducing the ‘six-again’ rule: “This was seen as having health benefits in terms of increasing the speed of play-the-balls, therefore reducing the number of players in each tackle and the amount of time spent in close contact.”

That seems a rather strange justification to me. After all, if the object is to reduce the amount of time spent in close contact, why not go all the way and adopt the rules of tag rugby?

It would be the first time we had altered the rules of the game because of the health benefits the rule change would supposedly bring, although some might argue that we brought in substitutions in the 1960s for that reason.

But surely the only criterion for judging rule changes is whether they are logical in dealing with a perceived problem that the game, as currently played, suffers from, and whether the law amendment will cure the problem.

As we’ve seen in recent seasons, the NRL had a problem of wrestling in the tackle, with most of the teams in that competition adopting similar tactics in defence that were designed to stifle the attacking side. And those tactics were largely successful, which is why the quality of NRL games as a spectacle had declined during that time.

With a single stroke of the pen, the NRL, under the leadership of its Chairman Peter V’landys, has eliminated that problem and the games have become far more watchable for the casual spectator, as well as the keen supporters of the 16 clubs.

The problem with bringing in the ‘six-again’ rule is that we have already played seven games so far this Super League season, which is roughly a quarter of the season as it originally was planned.

I’m not sure how many games we will ultimately end up playing, but I think it’s totally wrong to change the rules of the game when we are already so far into a season.

And, if we really are thinking about the health of the players, we have to realise that the game as now played in Australia makes far greater aerobic demands on the players. But the difference between NRL players and Super League players is that in this country we will probably have more than one game per week, as the clubs try to catch up on the games that haven’t been played.

So we are likely to end up with players being exhausted, and I’m not sure what the quality of the spectacle would be in those circumstances.

Clubs with small squads will be absolutely devastated, and we will almost certainly see some extremely one-sided scorelines – even more so than on the opening weekend of the resumed NRL season.

And then there is the proposal to abolish scrums, which seems a crazy idea to me. It will make the game almost completely unrecognisable, as well as making even more demands on the fitness of the players.

In the game as it’s currently played, scrums give players the chance for a welcome breather after some frenetic action on the pitch, while they also create opportunities for attacking innovations against a restricted defence.

If scrums are abolished, and are replaced by yet more play-the-balls, Rugby League will open itself to accusations of being one-dimensional, even if those allegations are unfair.

And as for the health benefits in relation to the coronavirus, the fact is that if a player takes to the field with the coronavirus, after 80 minutes of close contact in numerous tackles the virus will have spread to most of the players in the two teams, whether or not we have scrums.

The idea that a scrum is a way to infect more people would be true if a game lasted for a minute, but when it lasts for 80 minutes the advantage of abolishing scrums would be totally ineffective.

If there is any danger of players coming into a game with the virus, then the games shouldn’t be played.

What we need to be sure of is that our testing procedures are as foolproof as possible before the games take place.

This article first appeared in Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column in this week’s League Express