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Is the ‘Six Again’ Rule that bad as first thought?

When the NRL resumed in late May, there was a lot of excitement, especially for the new “six again” rule: as seen in the first game between Brisbane and Parramatta, the game was much quicker, the ball was in play more, the increased fatigue factor brought the crafty little men back into play, and all those tries looked great in four-minute highlights packages. I wrote about it here.

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Though, like most fun new things, the novelty wears off and we see it from a different perspective.

While the rule has sped the game up, it feels like it’s too fast now, turning the game into touch footy and widening the gulf between the good and bad teams.

In the 51 games since the COVID-19 resumption, just under a third of the games have ending with a margin of 20 points or more.

There’s been some hidings too:

ROUND THREE

Parramatta 34 – Brisbane 6

North Queensland 36 – Gold Coast 6

Manly Warringah 32 – Canterbury-Bankstown 6

ROUND FOUR

Sydney Roosters 59 – Brisbane 0

Penrith 26 – NZ Warriors 0

ROUND FIVE

Sydney Roosters 42 – Canterbury-Bankstown 6

ROUND SIX

Newcastle 27 – Brisbane 6

South Sydney 40 – NZ Warriors 12

ROUND SEVEN

Melbourne 50 – NZ Warriors 6

Wests Tigers 34 – Canterbury-Bankstown 6

ROUND EIGHT

Parramatta 42 – North Queensland 4

Cronulla-Sutherland 40 – Gold Coast 10

ROUND NINE (after four games)

Sydney Roosters 42 – North Queensland 16

Penrith 56 – Cronulla-Sutherland 24

For a competition that prides itself on its anyone-can-win-on-the-day closeness, the gulf between the good and the bad is worrying. Yes, there’s been some close games (including Golden Point thrillers between Penrith and Newcastle; Parramatta and Canberra; and Melbourne and the Roosters), but also far more wallopings.

The top 10 (Parramatta, Penrith, Roosters, Melbourne, Newcastle, Canberra, Souths, Cronulla, Wests, Manly) is just about set.

The bottom six teams (North Queensland, Warriors, Gold Coast, St George Illawarra, Brisbane, Canterbury) look set to stay there, and have been on the sour end of most of the hidings.

Let’s look at last year’s ladder. There was just seven wins between the second-placed Roosters (17 wins) and the 12th-placed Bulldogs (10 wins), with the Warriors (nine), Cowboys (nine), and Dragons (eight) not far behind. In the race for the top eight, three teams finished on 11 wins: Brisbane (eighth), the Wests Tigers (who finished ninth, because of course they did), and Penrith (10th). All in all, a pretty close season.

The “six again” rule has created a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in 2020: stronger teams who adapted quickly have flourished, racking up big scores and overwhelming weaker teams. Now, when a team takes advantage of numerous set restarts, they’re almost impossible to pin back.

Let’s look at the first three games of round nine, where a pattern emerges:

Sydney Roosters 42  – North Queensland 16

  • North Queensland scored the first six points after a scoreless opening 20 minutes, then the Roosters scored 42 points straight in 30 minutes, before the Cowboys jagged a couple of late tries. It was a tell-the-grandkids night for winger Matt Ikuvalu, scoring five tries after coming in late for an injured Brett Morris.

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Gold Coast 16 – NZ Warriors 12

  • The Warriors scored 12 points inside the first 10 minutes, then the Titans scored the next 16, with their last try coming with five minutes left. This probably isn’t the best example, as the Warriors were denied by the Bunker and the Titans’ three tries were spaced out.

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South Sydney 18 – Wests Tigers 10

  • Souths scored the first 18 points, from the seventh minute to the 56th, leading 10-0 at halftime. The Tigers hit back with 10 points in five minutes, but that was the end of the scoring.

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While the two Friday games were pretty close, the scoring-in-bulk pattern is still there.

So, what can be done about the “six again” rule?

One suggestion I made in my original Editorial was to borrow from rugby union’s excellent Advantage rule:

…where an attacking team keeps on rolling upon earning a penalty. When the play breaks down, the referee goes back to the original penalty.

This could be tweaked for the “six again” rule: if the attacking team earns a new set but doesn’t score (either through an error or the set ending naturally), the referee can go back to the most recent penalty. This gives the attacking team two options: either take the two points if it’s in kickable range, or start again with a fresh set of six. This gives the attacking team more freedom, knowing they have a back-up two points if they want it.

This adjustment may slow the game down a bit, and gives attacking teams the option of the insurance penalty goal.

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After much hype and hubbub, the rule is probably here to stay. The return to one referee probably isn’t helping, as one official can only see so much, though the NRL is unlikely to backflip on this either after making such a fuss about the change.

The worrying thing is if the “six again” rule decides a final. We all remember the storm created by Ben “six again…sorry, I changed my mind” Cummins during last year’s grand final (sorry, Raiders fans), which overshadowed a brilliant decider. With Canberra struggling this season (but still in the top eight), that decision hurts even more.

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We’ll see how the “six again” rule plays out this year, but be prepared: as the season continues, the teams in the bottom six will probably fall away further, leading to bigger poundings. Maybe with enough of these, fans will speak up and demand change for 2021.

Watch this space.

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