There are only a few things that happen more frequently in Rugby League than league structure revamps, one of them is rule changes.
They can often be smart advancements, take the corner flag ruling as one of those, or they can be awful, remember that rule that allowed you put your foot out of play and take the ball dead? Atrocious.
In recent days the latest rule changes proposed have been leaked, and they look set to transform the game for the better.
They include reducing the number of interchanges to eight, the introduction of a shot clock, the removal of the free play and finally, the addition of sudden-death Golden Point.
All four proposals have been put forward in a view to making games quicker and more exciting. And who can argue that the sport doesn’t need to see that happen? In recent years the length of games has increased considerably, to the point where they are taking over two hours to finish. It’s frustrating and takes the enjoyment out of watching games on TV but even more so for the live audience who already can’t feel their toes on a cold Thursday night on the terraces.
When someone goes to watch a Rugby League game they want to see big collisions and spectacular tries, not gawp at a big screen watching various angles of the same replay or a player conveniently go down with cramp when his side need a rest.
Rugby League’s longer game times are in stark contrast to the trend in other sports, that are trying to add more action in a smaller amount of time.
The most obvious example is Twenty20 cricket, the quicker, more exciting version of cricket compared to its five-day sister. It’s a concept which has been a revelation for cricket in both attendance and TV figures. But other sports have followed suit. Tennis, pool and golf have all started to implement shorter versions of the original game with the goal of providing more action in a shorter amount of time.
The habits of TV audiences are changing. Attention spans are lower and competition for viewers is higher.
You have to move with the times or fall behind. Super League is making strides to reconnect with a floating audience it clearly lost some time ago while trying to attract a new generation of supporters at the same time. Dragging games out with stoppages will not do that.
Time wasting is more prominent than ever in the sport and it’s an eye-sore for audiences both at the ground and in front of a TV.
That’s where the shot clock will help bring fewer stoppages and longer periods with the ball in play, the ideal scenario for marketers and audiences.
Combine that with the removal of the free play, which often sees the receiving side aimlessly punt the ball downfield before having to trudge back to the play and thus waste more time, stoppages will become much, much shorter and the action will flow far better.
The reduction in interchanges will have a significant impact on how the games unfold, albeit it is more likely to affect the art of coaching, with their tactical nous thrust into the limelight. Most teams have pre-planned rotations for players as the game unfolds, giving coaches two fewer interchanges will require them to operate more shrewdly.
It’s worth noting that players will have had their voice heard on these rule changes. Gareth Ellis represents players on a laws committee that also boasts club chief executives, Hull KR head coach Tim Sheens and the head of match officials, Steve Ganson, along with figures from the sport’s broadcasters.
The proposal that has split opinion the most is the Golden Point method. Admittedly, it’s hard to truly see the value of the system in regular league action, especially when it might result in spectators having to freeze at evening games for an extra 15 minutes and journalists miss their deadlines.
Golden Point is great when a result is necessary either way. When it’s not? It’s debatable. To Rugby League purists, the idea seems pointless.
However, a more casual audience would much rather see a winner determined. Has anyone ever been satisfied after watching a boxing bout end in a draw?
Last year I was left furious when a fight between Saul Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin ended in stalemate. After investing an evening to watching two athletes beat the hell out of each other, we were told there was no winner. It left me and the rest of the audience outraged.
So imagine watching a Rugby League game for the first time, seeing these monsters of men beat each other to a pulp for 80 minutes only to shake hands and call it quits before a winner has reigned supreme. It would be quite the anti-climax.
A knockout punch is like a match-winning try, they provide moments that live with viewers for a lifetime. Rugby League needs new ways to create those moments of magic, and the latest moves are a step in the right direction.