It’s not just the six again

The move to do away with the ‘unlimited’ tackle rule that had been played in Australia for 59 seasons was the brainchild of the urbane secretary of the Rugby Football League in England, Bill Fallowfield. The move was designed to counter what Jack McNamara in the Manchester Evening News described as the ‘evils of the almost never-ending possession’. In both countries, a grinding, physical style of play had developed, with teams holding possession for long periods. Australian centre Bob Hagan… told of a game in which Huddersfield kicked off against Hull Kingston Rovers, and then touched the ball only twice in the first half. Hagan reckons it was this game that killed off the old rule.

Centenary of Rugby League (2008), Ian Heads and David Middleton

In the late 1950s, rugby league faced a problem. It was boring. Teams could hold the ball indefinitely and, using the favoured tactic of one out hit-ups, could maintain possession provided they didn’t make an error or do something silly like scoring.

The problem identified, a radical solution was borrowed from American football to introduce a ‘use it or lose it’ ethos to the game. Initially limiting possession to four tackles, and extended to six in 1971 in New South Wales (and later elsewhere), the new rule was trialled in pre-season competitions to test its impacts. The new rule had its detractors and the style of football it spawned was chaotic – dubbed “panic football” – but better than it had been. It forced teams to attack. Four tackles didn’t seem to provide enough time, so six tackles became the solution. The game was better for it.

The NRL website has every Sydney grand final from 1966 onwards and if you watch them like I have, you can see the evolution from unlimited possession to four tackle and then six tackles in the space of a few hours.

The key thing here is the process. A problem is identified. A solution is proposed. The solution is tested and evaluated outside of the main premiership. If successful at resolving the initial problem, the solution is implemented. The solution is adjusted as required in response to feedback

This is the basic framework of common sense decision making. Further, it is evidence that the sport of rugby league collectively and consciously decided it was not a game that valued possession of a football but one that valued attacking play and, as perhaps an unintended consequence, became a game of field position

Rugby league has a history of making these rule changes – introducing the play the ball and reducing from 15 to 13 a side in 1906, reducing the points value of goals in 1897 and increasing the points value of tries in 1983, introducing and then gradually increasing the offside rule over the years – to support the scoring of tries, considered the most interesting part of the game.

As it currently stands, the set restart will not be joining that pantheon of innovative rule changes.

The governing bodies for Queensland, NSW, French, PNG and British rugby leagues, as well as the international board, have all joined the Australian body in adopting the set restart. The rule sets still aren’t completely harmonised – the two point field goal remains an Australian-only feautre as far as I can tell, scrums are used at fewer points (or not at all) to restart play in England and the rules are different again for the women’s game for some reason – but largely everyone is now on the same page after Peter V’Landys, Project Apollo and the ARLC unilaterally changed the sport of rugby league during the 2020 covid off-season.

As more time passes, and the NRL bogs down into a mire of repeated blowout scorelines, it becomes clear what the sport has decided to sign itself up for. In a sense, it continues the tradition of attacking play but it appears to be decidedly one way. Concerningly, even as fewer six agains are called, the blowouts remain.

Worse still, the sport seems to have regressed more than half a century to being a matter of possession. Phil Lutton put together a fantastic piece in the SMH on the rule changes that, somewhat novelly, involved speaking to the actual players to see what they thought was happening, instead of merely regurgitating talking points from the administration. I believe this is called journalism.

The truly fascinating thing about is that these well-paid professional athletes cannot explain precisely what’s happening. This is not a reflection on them but rather reflects the complexity of the problem the NRL faces.

We can see the obvious. There are a lot of games decided in 2020 and moreso in 2021 by larger scorelines than we are used to. We can watch the games and see that if one team has a noticeable advantage after ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, then it won’t be long before they race out to a twenty point lead and it’s game by half time. The second forty minutes is effectively irrelevant. I’ve written about the subltety of the impact on the game before but do you really need any more evidence than this?

Previously, I compared the impacts of the rule changes to that of climate change. It’s small, it’s consistent and there are other things hapenning but it’s there. Some people’s complete inability to parse this reality – that several things can happen simultaneously to affect an outcome – leaves me baffled on a regular basis, however, if a substantial population seem to have an unbending love of simple, monocausal explanations for the complexities of the world, that does seem to explain much of history.

Not every game is a blowout, just as each day is not necessarily hotter than the last, but the data paints a picture of the overall situation that is as alarming as it is obvious. To repeat bullshit talking points about development, pathways, roster management and whatever else is insulting to the collective intelligence of the NRL fanbase. If anything, the complete absence of any thorough explanation of how the sport’s mechanics actually work on the field belies the idea that rugby league is a simple game for simple people (a subscription to Rugby League Writers will dispell that notion for you) and yet simple people insist on talking as if it were so.

Confounding this further is the abject refusal of the same blowouts afflicting the NRL to turn up in Super League, which adopted the six again after their own covid break in 2020, or either State Cup, which implemented the six again at the start of this season.

To unpack this, we’re going to have to go back to first principles.

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I wrote about how this all came about in June of 2020 and managed to reasonably well predict most of what’s happened since. I was wrong about the impact on margins (that only became clear later) but otherwise, the cliff notes follow.

The suspension of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic put the NRL in breach of contract with its free-to-air broadcast partner, Nine. Nine, a relic in a dying industry, felt that it had overpaid for the rights to the NRL and Origin and used this opportunity to make the NRL take a significant cut to its broadcast revenue while forcing the NRL to bring in changes that would make the game more entertaining, thereby increasing Nine’s ratings. Australian netball did somethinig similar at the behest of Nine.

The NRL introduced packages of rule changes between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, between the first two rounds and remainder of the 2020 season and then another between the 2020 and 2021 seasons. These changes tend to all be lumped together and include the captain’s challenge, reducing from two to one referee, the set restart for ruck infringements and later offside, a reduction in scrums but greater flexibility in how they are used, the 20/40 and the two point field goal for attempts beyond the 40m line.

The changes made under the V’Landys regime, most of the above, were sold on the basis that it would improve the pace of the game, the flow of the game, bring back fatigue to the game, which would allow the little man to flourish. All of this was deemed to be more entertaining, taking us back to a time of purer, less robotic football.

When the changes were first premiered, on 28 May as Parramatta defeated Brisbane 34-6, it was clear that panic football had returned after lying dormant for half a century. As the weeks progressed, it was not at all clear to me that the product was better but there was definitely more of it and I was told by the media, breathlessly and relentlessly, that it was better.

Ratings for the first two weeks of the resumed competition were record breaking. The dogshit defence of the Broncos was seen by more than 1.3 million people. But after a few weeks, ratings fell back into their usual rhythm and while the season seemed to finish with improved overall ratings, it was on fewer games and the big four matches of the grand final and State of Origin were well down on previous years.

This season, we’ve seen Origin bounce back a little, leading to suggestions that its ratings are up, which is true as long as you don’t look at what the ratings were five years ago. For the regular season, ratings seem to be down but not significantly enough that you wouldn’t be able to point to streaming and make up some stuff about historically bad teams to explain it. If the on-field product is leading to people turning off their TVs, it hasn’t been significant enough that the NRL won’t be able to duck and weave taking any responsibility for what’s happening.

All of this leads us to the inevitable question: what was the point?

I understand that one must occassionally suffer in the short term, in order to gain in the long term. The penalty crackdown in 2018 was a perfect example. In principle, we simply had to ensure a few months of penalty-ridden games to ensure that players and coaches understood that the “wrestle” would not be tolerated and the game would then speed up. Players and coaches knew that the administration did not have the stomach for it, nor for the fight in the media, and would buckle eventually. Sure enough, the administration did and we watched a lot of penalties get awarded for nothing.

This is the opposite. If there isn’t a clear goal to be achieved, as I suspect the current administration does not know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, then why do we need to suffer? None of the rules supporters seem to be able to answer that question, preferring to deflect onto a Victorian bootstraps philosophy that every team simply must do better.

Ratings are, at best, flat and, at worst, down. That rather suggests that the rules haven’t had their intended impact. If the rules don’t serve their ostensible purpose – to entertain and to increase the audience – then there shouldn’t be anything that stops the NRL from rolling them back. There seems little point in “tweaking” the rule changes to mitigate the worst outcomes because the game is less entertaining and no more popular than it was previously.

As it stands, we have had to sit through a lot of terrible football for no gain.

The problem is how to unravel what’s been done. I don’t think it is as simple as getting rid of the set restart.

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I’ve got to say, even with the blow-outs the games are entertaining.

Before they were robotic, they were predictable. Now, they’re entertaining. Even the blowouts over the weekend were entertaining. For the viewer.

Peter V’Landys, 17 May 2021 (Poor roster management, not faster game, to blame for growing number of blowouts: V’landys, WWOS)

Teams that have adapted well to the new game don’t seem to mind where they start their sets. Using fast play-the-balls, a reliance on metre-eating backs gaining ground early in the set and a narrow passing game to add just enough variation to keep the defence guessing, they are able to keep their attacking line moving fast enough to regularly cover the best part of a length of the field in a set. The threat of the six again is enough to keep poorly organised defensive lines scrambling, unwilling to risk sitting in the ruck too long and extending the time that they have to defend. Ironically, this plays exactly into the better teams’ hands

Should the weaker team survive the set and regain possession, the well adapted teams are flying off the line and pinning down their opponents. This increases pressure on the team with the ball, forcing them to accept a paltry gain on their set or forcing them into an error, either from an ill-advised pass or from the sheer impact of defensive line.

Now the better team has field position and the ball. From there, any team with a competent halfback should be able to string together two or three repeat sets. Failing that, they can rely on their defensive linespeed to crush the opposition until they have had enough attacking opportunities to put points on the board. Then they get the ball back from kick-off.

And that’s it. Fifteen minutes of this and most teams crack – good and bad. Players do not have the aerobic engines to compete at that intensity for long and the poorer teams do not have the defensive structures to resist. Once the players are gassed, it’s trivial for the team with the upper hand to start running through and over teams no longer able to organise themselves or make tackles. Once they’re up by twenty, it’s game over but unfortunately, there’s often up to an hour still to go.

It gets worse later in the game when the fatigue causes handling errors, turning the ball back over and resulting in more energy-sapping defence, leading to a negative feedback loop whose destination is a blown out scoreline. On the rare occassions where the losing team manages to string a set or two together, they are too fatigued to run with any intensity. It becomes laughably easy to defend their insipid attacks. In desperation and running on empty, their fifth tackle options fall apart as players de-sychronise their timing, lose cohesion and begin to rely on individuals going it alone.

In short, once you are on the backfoot, you start to play a lot like the 2020 Brisbane Broncos. More often than not, you lose like them too.

What you may notice is that nowhere in that platonic ideal of the NRL in 2021 was the team with the upper hand awarded a set restart. Indeed, it was at most the threat of a set restart that got defensive teams scrambling. This, I think, explains why Penrith can have a positive set restart difference and Melbourne can have a negative difference and both can completely dominate the competition.

You might then be wondering what the difference is between 2019 and 2021. Isn’t this just a description of good rugby league gameplay? The answer is yes but also no. The differences are subtle and mostly rooted in the rule changes that have been brought in.

Relieving penalties are a thing of the past, replaced by the set restart. Bad teams relied on these penalties being awarded, sometimes seemingly at random, as a means to get a lift down the field, an opportunity take a breath and reset their organisation or to score an easy two points with another possession to follow.

This shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. It’s how the game has been played for more than a hundred years. Importantly, it interrupts the otherwise continuous possession of the better team and offers a foothold for the weaker team to work their way back into the game. Otherwise, the better team knows it has the ability to move the ball as required to score points, they simply need to hold the ball until the lesser team cracks. As Phil Lutton put it:

This style of play, with its heavy emphasis on holding possession in lieu of gaining field position, wasn’t possible previously because the conditions that allow it to exist weren’t in place.

The reduction from two on-field referees to one has had huge and completely unexplored implications. Most of the discourse at the time of the change was about working rights. The ARLC gave some token concessions and since then, the referees have shut up and gotten on with it. The problem is that between halving the number of referees and the increased pace of play, the referees are now worse at their jobs.

This is the genesis of the debacle of the high shot crackdown. High shots that were obvious enough on TV were being missed on field because the referees, like the players, were gassed and looking for too many things. That crackdown, like all of its previous editions, was quietly shelved when it turned out it was poorly thought through and ruining the spectacle of the game even moreso than the blowouts. The solution seems to have been more Bunker involvement, which I’m fairly certain was decried by segments of the media a few years ago but goes unremarked in V’Landys’ NRL. If they haven’t already, the referees are going to reach overload.

Under a two referee system, one referee set the line and the other policed the ruck. Under a one referee system, one referee does both jobs but neither of them well. The better teams are able to get off the mark a few tenths of a second earlier because the referee’s attention is elsewhere and that’s enough to get to the opposition slightly sooner and hit slightly harder. The cumulative effect starts to hurt after a while.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, teams like the Panthers can simply lie in the ruck, either waiting for a signal from the referee or their teammates to get up. If the wrestle has been eliminated, it’s been replaced with an even more blatant ruck infringement, largely daring the referees to blow a penalty that will never come. Instead, a lesser punishment in the form of a set restart may come, and the Panthers will simply shrug their shoulders and set their line, confident in the knowledge that their defence can withstand the insipid, exhausted attack of their opposition.

Considering all of this, I believe any attempts to tweak the rules, to apply another band-aid, are misguided. The suggestions to date will not disrupt this paradigm. One common one is to re-adopt the Super League rule and let the scoring team kick off. This would prevent the scoring team from regaining possession immediately after scoring but merely delays the inevitable. If the better teams can move the ball 70 metres downfield in a set, more if they get a set restart, and can manipulate the other team to dominate possession for an extended period, then we are back to square one.

Giving penalties in your own half and giving set restarts while in the attacking half doesn’t help either. Penalty goals are a key means for lesser teams with weak attacks to keep within touching distance of their opposition. By effectively eliminating the penalty goal from the game, you force weaker teams to attack the line. Penrith, who currently have the best defensive record of any Australian club of the last twenty years, would simply laugh.

In a season with a record number of shutouts, this isn’t going to redress the balance. Weaker teams need tools to keep their opposition within reach and to be able to work themselves back into the game, as they did 1895 through 2019. Without that, the blowouts will continue.

While we’ve examined one factor in detail but there are many at play and it would take a thesis to unpack everything. Some of the teams currently playing are simply bad at football and could probably stand to improve. But the teams on the wrong end of pastings have included the pre-season favourites and the club that won two premierships in 2018 and 2019. At the other end of the ladder, the Bulldogs have already won more games than the 2016 Knights and aren’t conceding anywhere near as many points as the 1999 Magpies. There’s always been bad teams but there’s never been scorelines like this. Not against good and bad teams. Not in a wet La Niña year. Not in a salary capped, full-time professional league. Not when it’s been fourteen years since the last expansion team entered the competition.

However, like breaking the four minute mile, the ceiling of what’s possible in rugby league has been raised and, even if the old rule set was reinstated, elements of the new style of play would remain. Unless the game is slowed down, it may well remain a game of possession. While I’m normally in favour of pushing the barriers of what’s humanly possible, we can only speculate as to where this might lead the sport over the coming years.

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So why don’t we see these blowouts in other leagues?

Despite the margin heading higher but not exceeding previous year, there’s signs in the English game. The closest game in round 12 was a forfeit. Round 8 had the fourth highest margin in Super League history. St Helens are currently conceding points at just 7.6 points per game, better even than Penrith and the best in Europe since Wigan in the 1986-87 season. The league leading attack of Warrington is less impressive, merely being the best since the 2017 Tigers. Salford’s attack has only been good for 11.5 points per game, the least since 2-23 Swinton in 1991-92. Leigh’s 0-12 record speaks for itself and their 39.1 points conceded per game is the seventh worst in the entire history of English rugby league dating back to 1895, sitting behind six Super League teams who managed to combine for 15 wins and 2 draws from 155 matches.

In Queensland Cup, Wynnum’s 34.0 points scored per game and 18.2 points conceded per game are only 16th and 52nd best marks in that competition. The Capras’ 16.1 points scored per game and the Cutters’ 33.6 points conceded per game are 26th and 27th worst, respectively. In all, it seems rather balanced. Despite this, the two leading teams each have more competition points than the bottom five combined, which includes three unaffiliated clubs.

It may just be that not enough set restarts have been called for it to be a sufficiently significant threat to fluster teams even in the absence of the six again call.

But we see a similar decline in penalties awarded.

Albeit, in percentage terms, it’s less significant in state cups than the NRL. Comparing the average penalties across 2016 to 2019 to the number called in 2021, 52% of penalties have been eliminated in NRL, compared to only 33% in Queensland Cup and 44% in NSW Cup.

It may be that in these leagues, the players aren’t athletic or skilled or coached well enough to implement the strategies used by Melbourne and Penrith in the NRL. Most of the NRL – and the Queensland Maroons, for that matter – haven’t come to grips with it yet, so it’s questionable whether we would have expected reserve graders to have mastered the new game. It may be that the spread of talent across the leagues is greater than the NRL and the effects are concealed within the typically higher scoring. It could be that Super League never adopted the second referee and state cup did so only sporadically and so the “change” back to one ref has had comparatively less impact on those competitions.

It may, as in the NRL and Super League in 2020, take time for the changes to fully percolate through. It will be worth watching other leagues to see how they adapt to the play on a year’s delay. More data should help isolate what’s happening and prove or disprove any hypotheses.

It is, as I said, complicated.

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Rugby league is an entirely artificial space. There is no natural order. We can decide what we want to see and there is no reason why would should have implemented these rules. They do not serve their intended purpose and the second order impacts, unknown at the time of implementation due to a lack of trialling, have made the NRL demonstrably worse.

Any defence of the rule changes starts with the presumption that they need to remain and only require modification but this flies in the face of the common sense decision making framework used previous administrators to improve the game. We must ask ourselves what purpose the changes were meant to serve, if that’s been accomplished and if not and what reasoning there is to continue with it. If the goal was to punish teams for losing, then it’s mission accomplished but if the goal was to entertain, it’s been sadly lacking.

The concern is that in a World Cup year, assuming it goes ahead at all, will see minnows will face off against Australian and New Zealander sides principally comprising players from Penrith and Melbourne. If full time professionals get blown off the park by these players, what hope is there for nations whose teams are made up of part timers and amateurs? It could get ugly and it will be embarrassing and it will reflect the shortage of common sense decision making at all levels of rugby league adminstration.

But until someone smarter than me works out what’s really going on, the best we can hope is the World Cup is refereed as the lower tiers of the sport are and hope that the next round of band-aid solutions, rumoured to already be in the works, somehow fixes the problem by accident.