When the National Rugby League introduced the six-again rule after two rounds of the 2020 season, necessity had finally brought about action.
In recent times the importance of controlling the ruck had become the ultimate determinate in the modern game; far more so than ever before, and the option given to referees of adding additional tackles to a team’s count rather than endlessly blowing penalties was certain to fundamentally change scoring in the game.
Essentially, the objective was to lessen the likelihood of teams conceding penalties and subsequent two point penalty goals, something in which many teams had become expert. The conceding of penalties should add weight and pressure to the defending team; stress them immensely and increase the chances of their attacking opponent crossing the line.
Sadly, in over structured and defensively minded modern rugby league, some teams became skilled in conceding frequent penalties before annoying the referee for a moment or two to buy some time. They would then trust their well drilled defensive structures to repel their opponent’s attacks.
The Australian Rugby League Commission had had enough, concerned with the image of the game moving forward. For context, in the 2019 NRL season 7,905 points were scored across 201 matches at an average of 39.3 points per game (ppg).
When the soon to be interrupted 2020 season began the pattern appeared set to continue. Admittedly it is a small sample size, yet seven of the opening 16 matches had featured 30 points or less and just three had exceeded 50.
Then, an annoying and lethal flu sent the NRL and indeed the world, into chaos.
Upon the NRL’s return in May, when the Broncos took on the Eels at Suncorp Stadium to open round three, the rule had been enacted. Five weeks later it would be tweaked to also allow referees to crack down on overly enthusiastic markers with a six-again call, rather than the mandatory penalty.
After a points per game average across the opening two rounds of just 35.4, what has followed appears to meet both the approval of fans, as well as the original intention of the Commission when the rule change was made.
Since the return to active play, 3,716 points have been scored across 86 matches at an average of 43.2 (ppg). Whilst a moderate incline, the increased pressure defences now find themselves under and their weakened ability to prevent teams from crossing their line is obvious and the scoring spectacle has indeed improved.
It seems that weight of possession and ill-discipline led to some blow out scores, thus widening the gap between the class of the league and the also-rans. Some may question the merit of that aspect, however, seeing the best teams winning when deserved and scoring more points while doing it cannot be a bad thing for the brand.
Surely finals play would be different, with teams relatively evenly matched and potentially more disciplined? The Commission must have hoped that the new rule would also play out in a positive way at some stage across the four weeks.
So far, the 2020 NRL Finals have featured total scores of 57,52,60,66,40 and 62, for a points per game figure of a whopping 56.2. In short, it has been a try and points fest across the opening two weeks and in all likelihood that pattern will continue when the Storm and Raiders do battle on Friday night, before the high flying Panthers and in form Rabbitohs meet 24 hours later in Sydney.
Whether fans like it or not, and some purists may be a little concerned about the game being heavily weighted towards attack and not good old fashioned defence, try scoring lies at the core of the game and there is now more of it.
With obvious guidance and advice given to the referees on how to use the new rule, the ARL Commission has achieved bang for its buck with the change. Seeking to draw fans back to an entertaining and slick product post the COVID-19 break, the decision to revamp the options available to referees has certainly added points and defensive pressure.
Whether we like that or not is a moot point. The reality is that winning low scoring semi-finals appears to be a thing of the past and there could well be another two high scoring affairs in week three of the play-offs this weekend.