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Do NRL teams really need six again?

James Moultrie assesses whether NRL teams actually benefit from the league's new rule

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My personal interest for rugby league came after years of playing rugby union from under-10s up to under-18 level and lacking anything to do in the summer to stay fit, I joined the one local rugby league team. I instantly preferred the game, being given the opportunity to play as a back and the pure speed of the game improved my overall fitness and skill levels. Rugby League for me both to play and watch, was a much faster game, more about momentum and often described as an ‘arm wrestle’ like contest, which personally was more exciting.

Having watched the National Rugby League (NRL), Australia’s and therefore the world’s most competitive rugby league, for around seven years, I was surprised to hear of any sort of rule change that would speed up the game. The lockdown period in Australia obviously led to numerous weeks off from the competition, and a chance for the heads of the league to look at the rules. Newly elected Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) chairman, Peter V’landys took the chance and decided to really try and change the nature of the game, with new rules in an attempt to draw in more fans, through more attacking favoured rugby and less stoppages. Considering how a six again call was the most controversial decision of the 2019 season, and was actually the defining moment of last year’s Grand Final, it was very interesting for me to look at how the new rule would operate.

At the forefront of this was the new ‘six again’ rule, that would lead to less penalties in and around the ruck. Any previous infringements that would have led to penalties, and thus play being slowed down, now will lead to the referee calling six again and a bell being rung for players to hear. This prevents any ‘shithousery’ at the ruck, where players would previously grab legs, place hands on the ball, or simply continue to hold a player down past the referees call for held in an attempt to prevent a try to be conceded or a chance for recovery. This created numerous situations in which teams would look to this in their defensive strategies to only concede two points or vice a versa, in attack, just take every chance at a two-point penalty kick. V’landys clearly associated this with the fan numbers, and with the new rule, hopes to create games willed with tries and attacking flare. However, players failing to stay square at marker, and continued offences can still lead to penalties and sin bins.

Upon watching all the games in rounds three and four of the competition, it is noticeable as an avid watcher, that the games seem to be more one sided and numerous commentators are recognising this tendency for blowouts to be partly due to the new rule. The best examples of this come from simple comparison from the 2019 season. In round four the overall points scored by the winning team across all eight games, was 169, whereas in 2020, the cumulative points for the round, was 236. Furthermore, the points differential between winning and losing teams last year in round four, is 56 in comparison to last week’s results. (94 points between winning and losing teams in 2019 and 150 between then in 2020). This would suggest that either players have been raring to go after being stuck in lockdown, or the new six to go rule is speeding up the game in favour of the attacking team.

As the aforementioned ‘arm wrestle’ nature of rugby league would suggest, once a team is on top, they rarely concede this momentum and if clinical, will continue to pile on points. Given how defending in rugby league is much more tiring, as there is normally a three to one (defender to attacker) ratio involved in a tackle, the new six again rule seems to have contributed to numerous blowouts in rounds three and four. In round three, only one of the eight fixtures ended with a smaller margin that twelve (the equivalent of two converted tries) and despite the small sample size, round four produced similar results, with only two of eight games being decided by fewer than ten points. Is an even faster game, really what rugby league needs?

The criticism comes from the tendency perhaps for errors in the final 20 minutes of the game, perhaps in contests between the lower skilled teams at the bottom of the ladder, and another possible area for officiating inconsistency. Now perhaps the months without any sport has skewed my ability to see problems with the NRL, but I can only see this creating a climate for rugby league in which the more skilful runners of the ball will step up and dominate, and the past two rounds of the competition has showcased this, and failed to see enough incriminating issues with the rule change, which would warrant a U-turn.

Players such as Kalyn Ponga for example, dominated in his return for the Newcastle Knights’ win over the Canberra Raiders. And as possibly one of the best exponents of the sidestep and a real danger at the attacking line—teams will need to ensure their play is up to standard to stop quick backs running away from them as they set their defensive lines. The average play the ball speed in rounds one and two was 3.65s but in round three was down to 3.46 and 3.58 in round four, and considering how the ball is played after every tackle—this adds up considerably in terms of speed. Fullbacks like Ponga, and last year’s Dally M Medal (Player of the year) winner James Tedesco, will now enjoy more time on the ball and further unstructured defensive lines to attack, which is personally what I would like to see.

Similarly, dummy halves like Damien Cook and Reed Mahoney will benefit most from this, the latter already showing it in the Parramatta Eels 36-4 win over Brisbane in round three. The six again rule was waived in favour of the Eels twice early on, and the fatigue really set in for the Broncos who just had no way of stopping the Eels. Mahoney was given quick ball at the ruck, giving dangerous backs, such as Mitch Moses and Clint Gutherson, extended time on the ball to dissect the Broncos lethargic defensive line. Both players picked up easy try assists from forwards running hard lines, simply too strong for the backs, or easily slipping off tired forwards attempted tackles.

I see the change as a bright one and think the NRL will only draw in more fans. It does help, that it is one of the only sports currently available to watch, and with more attacking based play will only make more regular watchers. The restart to the season has not only fixed my sleeping pattern but pushed my personal favourite league of rugby to watch, to a new level. V’landys’ promise to “showcase more open unstructured play for the benefit of fans” has been a success, and hopefully the further rounds of competition will only add to this.

My single qualm with the rule change is the worry of inconsistency - already showed by New Zealand Warriors assistant coach Tony Iro who openly criticised the referee’s failure to penalise continued ruck infringements on the first tackle, where defending teams try and slow down the very important start of a set. In their 26-0 loss to the panthers, they team from Penrith pushed the boundaries, without any obvious punishment. This is where hopefully the transition period will only last a couple rounds, and referees will start to clamp down on new crafty tactics that emerge from new rules. If referees are unable to address the early problems, then perhaps those on the ARLC will have to have another look at the rule. For now, as a fan, I’m all for the changes and think the transitional period will only lead to the league’s growth.

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