Faster play, more tries, less dead clock time and an improved entertainment package for fans. Those have been the intended results of a host of NRL rule changes over the last 20 years.
During that time the Australian game has seen tweak after tweak with the clear intention to lessen the number of scrums, crack down on wasted minutes and generally quicken up the pace of play. The majority of those changes have produced positive results, very few have been reversed, despite the powers at-be consistently streamlining and attempting to improve the overall spectacle.
The result has been a continually morphing game that rises in intensity and speed as each and every season rolls by. Wingers produce more and more astonishing feats when grounding the ball in the corner, 80 minute forwards work increasingly tirelessly and expert use of the interchange bench has become more important than ever, considering the pace of play.
Season 2021 saw the NRL rule makers take a huge swing at the game. Some questioned the thinking behind a host of new rule initiatives that seemed likely to change the very fabric of the competition; concerned that it was perhaps a case of too many all in one fell swoop.
A key part of those changes was the expanded use of the set restart rule, originally implemented in 2020.
Well the fabric certainly has changed. In just four rounds of football, the NRL competition has produced nine comprehensive thrashings, where the margin of victory has been in excess of 26 points or more.
In the 2020 season, it took until the final match of Round 7 to reach that point and with the Bulldogs, Sea Eagles, Cowboys already owning for and against deficits over the 100-point mark, the likelihood of some more beltings is high over the coming month.
The frenetic nature of the game and fewer stoppages have kept the Steeden active for longer. However, it is the more frequent awarding of set restarts when defensive players infringe that is most significantly driving the inflated margins of victory.
Canterbury have been the worst penalty offenders in 2021, yet conceded just 21; a relatively low number across four weeks of play. However, it is the countless set restarts they and other teams have conceded that have made their efforts to limit scoreboard damage near impossible.
The results have made the task of reclaiming ascendancy or altering the flow of play near impossible as teams roll down the field off the back of six again calls. Whilst we all want to see the better team win the contest in the end and one could argue that the three teams winless and at the bottom of the ladder deserve nothing at this stage of the season, one must also ask whether the bashings handed out to them and subsequent disillusionment of their fans is a good thing for the competition.
Shifting momentum in a game of rugby league has traditionally been a skill. The late Tommy Raudonikis was a master at it. His ability to get under the skin of an opposition player and distract them from the task at hand was legendary.
The clever milking of a penalty or excellent ruck technique to reduce the speed of attacking waves were also effectively used in the past when teams felt a match slipping away from them. When under the pump, teams did whatever they could, as referees too often turned a blind eye.
Sadly, the balance has now shifted too far the attacking team’s way, with the set restart rule producing 10 to 12 tackle sets and almost guaranteeing points at the completion of them.
Lesser teams have few options to alter the waves of attack other than pushing the boundaries in the ruck, thus conceding more and more restarts.
That is all fine if the NRL wishes to officiate the game in such a manner. However, when fans of lowly placed teams become sick of suffering hammerings each week and cease attending matches, the powers at be may well review the rule and perhaps alter the frequency at which it is applied.
Fans of at least three teams are probably nearing that point already.