So, here we slow again
New NRL rules will result in more sixagain calls from referees this season.
Exploiting new rules for faster play
RUGBY league must be the only game in the world where the moment a rule is introduced to improve the game’s quality the very people it is intended to benefit set about finding ways to exploit it.
Referees have been working with clubs all summer to school them on the new rules introduced last December and how they will work when the season begins next month.
The coaches took the news of the new rules philosophically, which is to say they spent their summer conjuring ways to exploit them to their best advantage.
It is the game’s most reliable economy, that of cause and effect.
The effort and ingenuity put into exploiting the rules, and the referees’ consistent interpretation of those rules, is worthy of a certain kind of shadowy admiration.
Among the changes are a six-again call when defenders are offside, instead of a penalty, as it used to be. This stops teams deliberately standing offside to concede a penalty to reset their defence.
“It should mean less stoppages, more fatigue, more open play,” NRL head of football Graham Annesley said yesterday, with admirable conviction.
Injured players who need play stopped will be interchanged. This prevents players from faking an injury to stop the game and earn their team a rest when under duress in defence.
P l a y will restart with a play-the-ball instead of a scrum when a player goes into touch, a shift to stop the time wasting from another scrum.
The new rules are designed to speed up play and increase fatigue and reintroduce certain manly qualities some say have been lost from the game.
But already coaches are exploring new ways to disguise wrestling and conjuring ways to use the new rules against themselves.
For example, some clubs are already planning to kick the ball into touch instead of trying to jam it into a corner, which kept the ball in play.
Their fear is by playing transition football, going from attack straight into defence without a restart, which brings a higher chance of fatigue, they might concede a six-again call after tackle two or three, turning it into an eight or nine-tackle set.
Which brings more fatigue.
Given the quality of ball carriers who make up the back three at some clubs, the strong running fullbacks and wingers so difficult to contain, coaches are paranoid about conceding a six again against the strength of their runs.
They figure a play-the-ball restart allows them to reset their defence before the referee restarts play.
Another benefit is it allows the attacking side time to get its forwards back to take the early hit-ups, which is easier to defend against than dynamic back threes such as a Ryan Papenhuyzen straight into a Josh Addo-Carr straight into a do-your-best. So essentially it takes the kick returns of the likes of James Tedesco and Tom Trbojevic out of play, for which it was not intended. “The whole intention of it is to give more compliance for the rules without stopping the game as much,” Annesley said.
“It’s a constant battle between enforcement of the rules and coaches trying to use the rules to their own advantage.”
Astute readers will note, though, that a rule was introduced some years ago for basically the opposite reason.
Billy Slater was so dangerous on the kick return, teams deliberately kicked the ball dead, forcing a restart and preventing Slater from returning the ball in broken play.
So the seven-tackle, 20m restart was introduced to discourage the negative ploy. Now, teams will effectively be putting it over the sideline to achieve the same result.
Some coaches are practising trapping the ball in the scrum, or calling “break”, to catch backrowers breaking early from a scrum, which is now a penalty.
The penalty is no longer a differential, meaning scrum penalties could now decide results, something that makes coaches very nervous.
On the flip side, coaches are also worried about being unable to break early when scrums are still fed into the second row, giving the attack a tremendous advantage.
The most concerning part of the new rules is they are artificial ways to counteract the influence of the wrestle in the game without actually addressing the wrestle itself.
So naturally coaches have been ramping up their wrestling strategies, mostly working hard to disguise it, in a bid to win the ruck.
Some coaches are moving away from the third defender pinning the knees, for example, to have the third defender instead pick up a single leg and spin the ball runner around to delay the play-the-ball.
It deceptively looks like there is still movement in the tackle, delaying a call of “held”, even though the ballrunner has no realistic hope of either breaking the tackle or offloading.
Worse, it is disguised as a harmless tackle but is dangerous enough to wishbone a ball runner.
Until the referees get on top of these strategies, the rest is just window dressing.