EDITORIAL | Five Ways to Improve the NRL in 2021

With the 2020 NRL season over (congratulations Melbourne), and a long summer ahead, it’s time to look into the crystal ball and see how 2021 can improve.

Fix the Bunker

Since its introduction in 2016, the NRL Bunker has been an expensive lightning rod for controversy. Some believe it’s used too much, and some believe it’s not used enough. There were a big blow up during the Souths v Canterbury-Bankstown round 19 game, when a try to Souths’ Jaxson Paulo was awarded by referee Ashley Klein without going to the Bunker (a rarity in today’s game). Subsequent replays showed that Paulo had put a foot into touch before grounding the ball, which would have been called correctly if the Bunker had been used, but it was too late to intervene. The mistake was even more shocking considering the NRL had reduced the Bunker officials to just one after another controversial call in round 18.

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There was more controversy in the grand final, with with Brian To’o scoring Penrith’s first try off an Isaah Yeo kick, though Yeo appeared to run behind Kurt Capewell before kicking. While the obstruction rule can be murky, this was a clear infringement, which the Bunker got wrong.

The big problem with the Bunker is what it can actually rule on in the lead-up to tries. While you could open it up so the Bunker has full power, the flip side is games would take longer as referees go to the Bunker for every try and we have to wait five minutes for them to CSI the footage and make a decision based on slo-mo replays.

The NRL have taken steps to rectify this, with experimental rules trialled in round 20, including allowing the Bunker to review the play while the conversion is being set up, and overrule the decision if necessary. The new rule was used in the Brisbane vs North Qld game, with the Cowboys’ Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow having a long-range try taken off him after he was rule offside.

To quote the NRL.com match report:

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow had what would have been a sizzling try called back by the NRL Bunker when he was ruled to be just off-side when Drinkwater unleashed an outrageous kick from inside his own 10-metre line…The new experimental rules then kicked in, where the NRL Bunker can review a try awarded by the on-field referee before the conversion is attempted.

Hopefully this rule change stays for 2021, as it’ll clean up a lot of unfortunate errors.

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Increase the Captain’s Challenge

While the “Six Again” rule has divided fans, the Captain’s Challenge has been a big success. Though some teams have done their best Shane Watson impersonation and blown their one unsuccessful Challenge early, the teams who’ve used it responsibly have benefited, though sometimes it’s used tactically to give teams a breather.

It proved crucial in Canberra’s tough win over North Queensland in Townsville: leading 14-12 with 10 minutes left, Canberra were coming out of their own territory and Dunamis Lui was incorrectly penalised for being offside by referee Ben Cummins (insert your own conspiracy theories here, Raiders fans), gifting the Cowboys a game-tying penalty goal. Canberra used a Captain’s Challenge to reverse the decision and prevent the penalty shot. The Raiders won 14-12 off that successful Challenge.

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So, why not extend it to two unsuccessful Challenges per game (one each half)? This means teams won’t be punished for throwing it away early and it adds an extra tactical element, especially late in games if teams have a Challenge up their sleeves.

A Shorter Season with a Dedicated State of Origin Window

While the reduced 20-round season was due to COVID-19, it’s worth retaining the same length in 2021 (though the Titans and Warriors would disagree, as they probably would have made the finals in a regular 24-game season), with a dedicated mid-season Origin window.

In 2018, the NRL implemented a representative round on the weekend before Origin II, with Women’s Origin on Friday night, Pacific Tests on Saturday, and Origin on Sunday night. That was going to continue this year before the COVID-19 postponement.

If there’s a 20-round season, there’s plenty of time for the Origin window: suspend the NRL for four weeks from June to July, with a three game Women’s Origin series on Friday nights and a Jillaroos v Kiwi Ferns Test, a round robin Pacific Nations tournament as Saturday night double-headers (Samoa, Tonga, PNG, Fiji), and Origin on Wednesday nights. There’ll be plenty of quality footy for fans and broadcasters, and the extra week after Origin III gives the players a decent rest before resuming NRL duties, with clubs no longer forced to field weakened teams (and risk losing precious competition points) due to Origin commitments.

While four weeks seems like a long time with no NRL footy, most of the players will be involved in Origin or the Pacific Tests.

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WEEK ONE: Friday night: Women’s Origin I; Saturday night: Samoa v Tonga, PNG v Fiji; Wednesday night: Origin I.

WEEK TWO: Friday night: Women’s Origin II; Saturday night: Tonga v PNG, Fiji v Samoa; Wednesday night: Origin II.

WEEK THREE: Friday night: Women’s Origin III; Saturday night: Samoa v PNG, Tonga v Fiji; Wednesday night: Origin III.

WEEK FOUR: Friday night: Women’s Test – Jillaroos v Kiwi Ferns; Saturday night: Pacific Nations Final (first v second).

Keep Melbourne on the Sunshine Coast…For Now

While the Storm are still a Melbourne team, their undefeated “home” record on the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane in 2020 (a combined 9-0) can’t be ignored. Who knows when the Storm will be allowed back at AAMI Park, so it makes sense to keep them on the Sunshine Coast for now, with big games at Lang Park. Plus, it’s important to keep giving the Sunshine Coast top-level footy: while crowds were affected by the COVID-19 restrictions, when full crowds are eventually allowed, Sunny Coast fans will pack out the stadium.

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A “Super Sunday” Daytime Triple-Header

While night footy equals bigger ratings and more advertising revenue, there’s nothing better than watching the footy on a crisp Saturday/Sunday afternoon. Thirty years ago, every NSWRL final was played on a Saturday/Sunday afternoon. The last Sunday of the season was an event: lower grade grand finals in the morning, followed by the NSWRL Grand Final in the afternoon. With the game over by 5pm, fans could celebrate or commiserate into the night.

Usually, the quality of footy is better in the daytime, as there’s less dew, it’s normally warmer, and the football’s probably drier, leading to better handling, more completed sets, and a free-flowing game.

Channel Nine loves their Thursday and Friday night footy (which is fine, even if the Broncos are featured far too often), but there’s a couple of awkward timeslots that could be avoided by shifting them to the daytime.

The 6pm Friday game and the semi-regular 6:30pm Sunday game are tough to sell: while the Friday 6pm game is perfect for the Warriors (prime time in NZ), for Australian fans, it’s right in that early evening rough spot, when people have finished work and are getting ready for the weekend. The Sunday night game is a little better, but it can feel like an afterthought if your team’s not playing, and it’s much better to have the round done by 6pm.

Here’s a solution: create a Sunday triple header, with the first game at 12pm, the second game at 2pm, and the third game at 4pm. While lunchtime on a Sunday is a bit odd, it’s a lot more accommodating than 6pm Friday or 6:30pm Sunday, and it’s much easier to get to the game. The 12pm slot could be devoted to the Warriors, as it’s 2pm NZ time. Also, Fox League would be in heaven, with Super Saturday and Super Sunday triple-headers.

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Here’s how it’d work:

Thursday night: 8pm.

Friday night: 8pm.

Saturday: 3pm, 5:30pm, 7:30pm.

Sunday: 12pm, 2pm, 4pm.

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