In their infinite wisdom, the NRL introduced rule changes over the second off-season. The two major changes were to reduce from two referees to one and the six again set reset introduced for ruck infringements. In the froth over the six again, going back to one referee has almost been an afterthought but has likely had a similar scale of impact.
It’s difficult to keep track of the purported benefits – pace, flow, fatigue, consistency and bringing back the little man – thanks to their vagueness. Anything that’s changed in the last few weeks has been ascribed to the rule changes, whether it made sense to do so or not.
With three rounds complete, it’s time to take an early look at how these changes have altered the way the game is played.
We can use stats to cut through what we see on the screen and delve into some of what’s happening.
The perception that the rule changes have led to more blowouts or points is wrong. The average margin for the rounds played are higher than average but not unusually so (last three rounds in red):
Even the rolling average margin over three rounds played is higher than average, but still not unusual.
If the current average margin of rounds 3 to 5 is somehow maintained for the whole season, then it would be on par with the 2002 season but this seems very unlikely.
If the pace that points have been scored over the last three rounds is maintained at 38.3 per game, that will put the balance of this season on par with 2011, the lowest scoring year in the NRL era. The current rate is two points per game below the average of the last decade and ten points below the record of 48.9 per game set in 2001.
The points appear to have gone missing in penalty goals.
To me, the results we’ve seen are well explained by good teams beating the shit out of bad ones. If anything is at play, the season suspension has created a disparity in physical fitness across the comp, which in tandem with the new rules reducing penalty goals, might explain the mildly strange combination of higher than average margins with relatively low scoring.
Time will tell, but as the fitness disparity closes, it will be replaced by a disparity in effort as teams are gradually ruled out of contention.
Running metres have totally blown out.
Note that I use the stats on NRL.com, which indicate that the total running metres of rounds 3-5 has increased by roughly 9% compared to rounds 1-2. Fox League’s stats also show an increase, on the order of 10%.
There seems to be some thinking that this phenomenon is because teams don’t get a lift down field from the kick for touch that they used to get. Kicking metres, however, if anything have gone up. Perhaps stuck in their own end and without a penalty to assist, teams are kicking for distance more frequently at the end of sets.
Some of these increases might be explainable through chance, as well as evolving measurement methods but, in general, more stuff is happening, as counted by the stats, in the same game time.
[Note carlos uses Fox League’s stats]
The main change is that the NRL has increased the amount of field covered by the players in exchange for a reduction in the number of penalties.
But if you include the number of six again calls, then the refs are as involved as ever.
Funnily enough, teams that were giving away calculated penalties in order to gain a defensive advantage are still doing so, it’s just being swept under the rug of a rebrand. I, for one, am shocked that savvy coaches and smart players who are famous for gaming the system would work out how to game the system.
It is clearly preferable to give away a new set on the first or second tackle and set the defensive line than to attempt to keep up with the pace, especially as referees are not giving attacking teams the usual leg up to get out of their own half that they have come to expect. Refs seem to have caught on to this strategy in round 5, issuing 50% more six agains more evenly spread across the tackle count, than in rounds 3 and 4.
The six again is an intentional compromise between stopping the game for penalties and policing ruck infringements that slow the game down. It succeeds in removing penalties but it does not effectively help police the ruck, due to reasons that will be elaborated later.
“The little man is back” is the most mystifying response to the rule changes. Trying to untangle what this actually means is an intellectual exercise on par with understanding quantum chromodynamics.
Using Taylors, the proportion of production generated by playmakers, defined as those wearing 6, 7 and 9, compared to the rest of the starters is the same now as it has been for the last few seasons.
The little man is back, in the sense that he never went away. If anything, he came back a year early somehow.
Play the ball speed
I’m not a huge fan of the play the ball speed metric because it doesn’t seem to reliably mean anything about winning games of football but it can be at least help us identify a narrative.
Or perhaps not. It’s possible that the speed increase caused by six agains is offset by eliminating the second referee yelling at players in the ruck, so we kind of end up back where we were anyway.
When commentators talk about the “pace” of the game, I think they mean more stuff is happening in the same amount of time. When commentators talk about the “flow” of the game, I think they mean play the ball speed and minimising interruptions caused by awarding penalties. Insofar as these very generous interpretations hold up – the little man angle remains hard to fathom – and players are inarguably more fatigued, it’s questionable whether this is better.
No one can tell you what your aesthetic preferences are, how rugby league looks and feels to watch and enjoy, or offer a certain judgement as to what is better. Aesthetics are pure subjectivity.
I can offer my opinion and justify it for what it’s worth to you, which is that the style of gameplay is not sufficiently different to justify the enormous volume of plaudits that were thrown around when the season resumed. Where the gameplay is different, this hasn’t actually improved my enjoyment of the game.
The immediate response to the rule changes was for players to do everything more, which created the illusion of filling air time with action. Round 3 reminded me of the frenetic period in the late 60s following the adoption of limited tackles. Players hadn’t optimised their tactics so responded, disoriented and panicky, by running the ball.
We’re seeing this settle relatively quickly. I expect that the amount of stuff done per game will find a new level, higher than we were used to previously. In the long run, we will get used to this but I’m yet to be convinced that more is better. If nothing else, more running metres per game cheapens the value of each metre made.
The irony is that the subtleties of the game’s structure were already happened so quickly that they were easily lost in the motion on screen. This has created a stereotype that the game is solely one-up hit-ups when nothing could be further from the truth for a well-drilled team. Speeding up has made it more difficult still to see the underlying shape of the game.
Conversely, it is entirely possible that this distortion is created by a newfound decreased emphasis on structure. Why execute complex plays when you can simply wait for your opposition to tire out and then run over the top of them? It might be easier, possibly even funnier, but I don’t believe this is more entertaining.
The gimmicks will continue until flow improves
Discussing the effectiveness of the rule changes merits a discussion of the context in which they came about. Glossing over the fact that the chairman has to date grossly overreached his job description and acknowledging the lack of transparency in the broadcast negotiations, the next biggest issue V’Landys’ leadership has introduced is making reactive changes in response to “problems” – largely the invention of a few nostalgic boomer hacks – and then using weak justifications after the fact.
For example, most people don’t care if there’s one referee or two on the field but for some reason, it grinds the gears of a particular subset of the NRL audience that we had two refs. So be it, but if the argument is the ruck will be policed better by one referee who’s also setting the line than two referees, one at the line and one at the ruck, then that is obviously bogus. Justifying it by cost savings that evaporated as soon as they came under any scrutiny and then by reference to a Daily Telegraph fan poll does not pass the smell test. So what was the point of the change? If we can’t publicly acknowledge who or what is driving these changes, why do they get accommodated?
The application of the six again in two games shows why this administrative approach is flawed. While Parramatta were defending a last minute Penrith attack on Friday, players were still lying about in the ruck to waste time and stymie the offence. Yes, the Eels’ Dylan Brown was sent off but why not just do that in the first place? Why introduce a new rule that prevents the refs from cutting to the chase and more effectively refereeing the game? Penrith lost the game.
Arguing that refs can still penalise ruck infringements if they so choose ignores the obviously political environment in which the referees operate. We know penalties are not acceptable to management because that’s what the referees used in an attempt to clean up ruck infringements in 2018.
The refs were castigated for it because the childishly cranky part of the NRL audience that the decision-makers listen to had a whinge that they were getting bored with the stoppages. Whether the stoppages would have the desired impact in the long-term never got a run because in the short term, tantrums were being thrown about blown whistles ruining the flow and, in a supreme act of psychological projection, referees trying to make themselves the centre of attention.
In an ideal world, perhaps the commercial and judicial arms of the sport would be separate but they aren’t in rugby league. Greenberg told the refs to lay off and they did. Players and coaches were not incentivised to change and the so-called wrestle continues.
In fact, referees now have more responsibility and potential impact on the game, having to use their discretion as to whether a ruck infringement justifies no penalty, a six again or an actual penalty. Teams who find themselves in situations where they would prefer a penalty than a set restart are not given an option, as demonstrated in Thursday’s Manly-Brisbane game where two set resets were given within twenty seconds of the last five minutes of the game, in lieu of a game-tieing shot at goal. The Broncos lost.
These consequences would have been obvious if they were thought about before implementation. Famously, the incredibly named Project Apollo’s innovation committee only had one hour to consider the changes. Once the novelty has worn off, questions will be asked, not just by unimportant nobodies with a WordPress account, but also by people who are actually listened to as the fallout become impossible to ignore. The Peanut King has already fired a shot across the bows, although I refuse to read what what he’s actually said.
In the rush to be seen doing something, V’Landys risks either looking foolish in rolling back the changes or worse and more likely, he will double down. For example, the suggestion that next season the scoring team will kick-off to prevent teams from getting a roll on is a dire sign but we’ll see what actually comes to pass. The slippery slope argument is that if he chooses to double down, V’Landys will apply band-aid gimmick after band-aid gimmick until the sport is barely recognisable or enjoyable to watch, satisfying no one and leaving everyone wondering how we got here.
While rugby league has a tradition of innovation to attract the mass spectator, it is also extremely questionable whether the ends will justify these means. The alternative – to take some time to consider changes, think through the second-order impacts, trial at lower levels, implement between seasons and transparently state the justification – is there to be utilised.
After a huge surge driven by a palpable sense of relief at the return of the footy, TV ratings are back to where they were pre-coronavirus. Nonetheless, the rule changes are likely here to stay.