2021 NRL Grand Final - Panthers v Rabbitohs
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 03: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers celebrates with Matt Burton of the Panthers after he scored a try during the 2021 NRL Grand Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium on October 03, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The Penrith Panthers won the 2021 NRL premiership, the Bulldogs were deserved wooden spooners and there were 9,219 points scored across the 201 games played.

That is a heck of a lot of points, in fact, it translates to an average of 45.8 per game, seemingly a perfect result for the powers at be seeking to open up the contest and entertain crowds with a cavalcade of point-scoring.

That intention was met in spades throughout the home and away season, with consistently mammoth scores put on by the dominant sides and the battlers subjected to endless time behind the try line, waiting for conversion attempts and unable to halt the momentum.

Much of that scoring came off the back of the first full season of the NRL's automatic six-again rule. It saw teams frequently enjoy between 10 and 20 tackles with the ball in hand and the inevitable points tallied on the scoreboard.

Whilst that may have been mighty fun for the team racking up the numbers, their opponents and its fans briskly lost interest. The chasm between the top six teams in the competition and the majority who, let's face it, were making up the numbers whilst the elite battled things out for the chance at a premiership, was vast.

NRL Rd 23 - Panthers v Rabbitohs
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 20: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers is tackled by Cameron Murray of the Rabbitohs during the round 23 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium, on August 20, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

That chasm was only widened by the still newish rule that supposedly rewards teams adhering to the rules and those subsequently able to take advantage of consecutive sets in attack. Such advantage comes at the expense of the 'naughty' teams, those incapable of resisting the infringements that draw the dreaded and disturbing sound that coincides with a six again decision awarded by a whistle blower.

The core problem with such a situation was that refereeing in the NRL was once again as inconsistent as ever and the lop-sided score lines created nothing but disinterest for fans of the teams on the end of frequent drubbings.

It might be easy and simplistic to suggest that the teams copping the beltings should do themselves a favour and improve quickly, citing their flaws as deserved reasons for the embarrassing losses they took at different stages of the season. However, history tells us that very few, if any, NRL titles have been won by underserving teams and the cream will always rise to the top no matter how close the score lines become.

In short, there is no need for teams to be belted by 40 when a smaller margin would still announce the dominance of their conqueror. The NRL appeared to encourage such hidings with a somewhat arbitrary enforcement of its new rule by referees, which in turn frazzled the feelings of the fans of the lesser lights, who would normally have taken some pride in their team's losing yet brave effort in years gone by.

In short, the NRL widened the gap between the good and ordinary and the competition's attendance figures would have suffered outside of another pandemic affected season.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 09: Nick Cotric of the Bulldogs and his team mates looks dejected after a try during the round nine NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Canterbury Bulldogs at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, on May 09, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Then, the finals came, referees whistles appeared to lose their peas and a gripping play-off series where defence once again became the deciding factor took place.

A total of 331 points were scored across nine finals' matches at an average of 36.7 points per game, despite the fact that two of those matches actually chalked up in excess of 50 points.

In the remaining matches, the finals' football played was far superior to some of the 'up and back' rubbish witnessed throughout the season. Sure, the competition was more even, yet there were few better games all year than South Sydney's 16-10 win over Penrith in Week 1 of the finals, or the gripping 8-6 score line that saw the Panthers conquer the Eels and advance to the preliminary final.

When the Storm and Panthers fought out a 16-point epic the following week and the grand final produced just 26 points, as the Panthers redeemed themselves 12 months after their tragic loss to Melbourne, the evidence firmly suggested that fans were enraptured with the style of football they were witnessing.

The toughness and discipline shown during those matches was far more entertaining than the try after try farce they had frequently witnessed during the regular season, with little defence in sight and the referee holding the fate of teams in his/her hands based on an interpretation.

The NRL could do far worse than admit fault and ditch what proved to be a terrific rule for a handful of clubs and nothing but a rod in the back of others attempting to improve and sneak closer to the elite.

If the finals proved anything at all, it was that the set restart did very little to improve the game in 2021.

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Any change to a system results in anticipated positive and negative outcomes, and unanticipated positive and negative outcomes. If the positives outweigh the negatives, then the change has succeed. If the negatives outweigh the positives, then it has failed.

    Looking at the set restart change, what do we find?
    The anticipated positive of stopping the wrestling was achieved.
    The anticipated positive of more scoring was achieved.
    I can’t think of any unanticipated positives.

    There should have been an anticipated negative – that the referees would be inconsistent. (I guess the NRL thought that as long as a referee was consistent during the match he refereed, then it would not matter if other refs applied different standards when deciding on six-to-go.)
    The blowouts caused by loss of momentum would have been an unanticipated negative, as would the lack of entertainment for viewers who supported neither side. (I wonder how many changed channels at half time when the result already seemed a foregone conclusion).

    My take? Set restart worked by delivering the expected positives, but overall failed because the negatives were too great. However, if the NRL were to scrap it, what would they put in its place? We don’t want to see the return of wrestling. We don’t want to see lots of sin-binning for laying on in the tackles. Going back to penalties is not a viable solution. Maybe instead of an extra SIX tackles the referee awards an extra THREE. That would penalise the defenders, but I anticipate that it would not give the attackers as much advantage as they currently get, and maybe (hopefully!) reduce huge momentum gains and blowouts I can’t anticipate any negatives.

    Not much of a suggestion, I know, But it is all that I can provide.

  2. Nice article. To me, the issue is the coaching of the referees. I’m not super observant or particularly analytical of referees, but when we cite the ‘best’ referees, my impression is that it was Chechin and Badger. We talk about Bill Harrigan from a past era. But given those refs interpreted the game under the same set of rules but were respected for getting the balance right while allowing a free-er flowing game, isn’t it all about the approach? That is, what’s wrong with refereeing started with Sutton and co. and also the NRL’s obsession with ‘perfection’ (think $bunker$) and thinking the more ‘prescriptive’ we are the more black and white things should be – only to find it put the focus on what we got wrong which lead to knee-jerk reactions etc. I’m no expert but surely this points to adopting the approach and mindset of the refs cited and to go from there?

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