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Why the NRL 2021 rule changes will work

Footy fans got an early Christmas present this week, with eight new rules for the 2021 NRL season.

So, are they the hot new video game console you’ve been bugging your parents for? Or are they the oversized, ugly, itchy jumper from a well-meaning relative?

A two-point field goal for kicks taken from more than 40 metres out

While the logic of this is sound (rewarding teams for long-range shots), making it equal to a penalty goal or conversion doesn’t make sense; extend it to three points, which is the halfway point of a goal and a try, and keep the odd-numbered advantage.

With this new rule, expect some crazy shootouts late in tight games as teams try to get the extra points.

WILL IT WORK?

Unless you’re a fan of rugby union-style field goal shootouts, then probably not. Five points for long-range try would have worked better and encouraged more attacking footy.

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‘Six again’ to be called for 10-metre infringements

The new ‘six again’ rule has been divisive: while it was exciting at first, it also led to lopsided scorelines, a pattern of teams scoring in bunches, and the biggest disparity between the top and bottom eight in years.

In theory, this rule is designed to speed the game up and cut down on scrums.

However, it could also see an uneven possession count, with smart teams holding onto the ball for multiple sets (like rugby union, where teams string together huge phases with the ball).

While this rule will punish undisciplined teams (and probably cut down on cynical penalties to slow the game down), there could be some massive blowouts, especially in the first few rounds, which will lead to the usual “the game’s turned into touch footy” remarks on social media.

WILL IT WORK?

Probably not. By extending the ‘six again’ scope, the increased speed of the game could overwhelm some teams and lead to a few cricket scores.

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Penalties for teams if they leave a scrum before a referee calls “break”

For most fans, scrums have been a joke for years, with the feeding team winning the ball with little resistance. This rule change could get messy. It’d be better to encourage a contest in the scrums again.

WILL IT WORK?

No, unless it can make scrums exciting again.

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A play-the-ball restart if the ball or player with the ball goes over the sideline

Again, this rule is designed to increase the game’s speed and reduce scrums. I think it’ll work: rather than everyone taking their time setting a scrum, just play the ball and get on with it.

WILL IT WORK?

Yes. Anything which cuts down on ‘ball out of play’ time, and restarts the game quicker, is welcome.

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The Bunker will now review replays after an on-field referee awards a try, but a conversion attempt will not be allowed until it gets the green light

This rule was trialled in Round 20 this year, with Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow having an exciting long-range try denied after the fact. Hopefully this new rule will reduce adjudicating errors, and give referees more confidence in making a decision, knowing the Bunker can intervene.

WILL IT WORK?

Yes. While it means there will be more Bunker referrals (and unexplained urges for KFC), it’s worth it if more decisions are correct.

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Injured players will be interchanged if a trainer ask for play to be stopped

This is another good idea. Hopefully it’ll stop attacking teams taking advantage of a defensive line disadvantaged by injured players. The question is, will this be a free interchange?

WILL IT WORK?

Yes. Player welfare is important, and teams shouldn’t be punished in the short term if they lose someone during the game.

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When a Captain’s Challenge is inconclusive, a team will not be docked for an unsuccessful attempt

The Captain’s Challenge was a brilliant edition in 2020 (it saved the Raiders in a tight game in Townsville), so it makes sense to extend its reach. It also makes sense not to punish teams if the evidence is inconclusive (while multiple camera angles and super slo-mo replays are great, they can only do so much). It might encourage teams to use their Captain’s Challenge on line-ball calls, as they have less to lose.

WILL IT WORK?

Yes. The Captain’s Challenge is fantastic (as long as teams use it responsibly), so it should be extended.

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A handover will be ordered when a player does not make a genuine attempt to play the ball correctly with their foot.

This is another good rule. Play-the-balls can get murky in the heat of battle, so this could sort out lazy players quick smart.

One issue is consistency, as some referees could be super-pedantic, while others could be more liberal.

It could also be a natural counter to the extended ‘six again’ rule, with lazy teams blowing a glut of possession by not paying attention to the basics.

WILL IT WORK?

Yes, as long as it’s consistent.

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