Why New Rule Changes Will Hinder NRL’s Entertainment Value

The NRL made a lot of noise about their rule changes in the 2020/21 off-season. While I previously wrote about them here, the NRL administrators’ obsession with speeding up the game for greater ‘entertainment’ could come back to hurt them.

There are some rules that make sense: the adjustment to the Bunker will hopefully give the on-field referee more confidence to make quicker decisions, knowing the Bunker can intervene if needed; interchanging genuinely injured players is great for player welfare; and not taking a Captain’s Challenge away from a team if the footage is inconclusive makes sense – don’t punish teams for a failure in technology. 

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However, the rules that make the game even quicker have the potential to bite back hard (and that two-point field goal is just ridiculous!). We’ve just completed round one and already the Broncos have lost Xavier Coates (neck), John Asiata (shoulder), and Matt Lodge (hamstring) in their loss to the Eels. With the Broncos coming off a horror 2020, they can ill-afford major injuries so early. Like Manly Warringah with Tom Trbojevic last year, a key injury can ruin a team’s season before you know it, let alone three in one game!

Some sporting administrators love fiddling with the rules to make their product more ‘attractive’: the BBL introduced a few new rules with mixed reviews, with the AFL has been constantly tinkering to increase the scores and entertainment value, but it hasn’t really worked. The BBLs new rules had a direct impact on the 2020/21 tournament: after the Perth Scorchers lost to the Brisbane Heat on the final day of the regular season, the Sydney Sixers only needed the Bash Boost point (awarded to the team with the most runs after 10 overs) in their game against the Melbourne Stars to finish first. The Sixers got the point, but the final 10 overs petered out (though the Sixers won the game): not the best advertisement for a game that prides itself on family-friendly excitement, especially on the Australia Day/January 26 holiday evening.

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While the NRL is aiming to make the competition as even and entertaining as possible, it might backfire. There was a massive gap between the top 10 and bottom six in 2020 (at least in standard), and the top eight was decided in round 19. That gap may get even bigger in 2021 as unfit teams fall even further behind, especially ones with a lot of size who rely on their go-forward and are vulnerable to the crafty little men tearing them apart in the ruck as fatigue sets in. These big scores could turn The Greatest Game of All into glorified touch footy.

Two big examples from round one were the Sydney Roosters’ 46-4 win over Manly Warringah, and Penrith’s 24-0 win over North Queensland.

After a relatively even first nine minutes, the Roosters scored 42 straight points in the next 71 minutes (with hat-tricks to Brett Morris and James Tedesco): though the size of the margin may only indicate the Roosters’ superiority over a struggling Sea Eagles minus Tom Trbojevic. Still, it sets a precedent of the elite teams bossing the cellar-dwellers.

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As for the Panthers v Cowboys game, it was a match-up between the 2020 runners-up (and runaway minor premiers) and a 2020 bottom four team. Again, it was tight early, with the Panthers leading 8-0 at halftime: then the Panthers clicked in the second half, with three tries in nine minutes (Dylan Edwards, Brian To’o, Isaah Yeo). New Cowboys coach Todd Payten said, “In my opinion we’re lucky it wasn’t 50-0.”

In these two games, the markers between the top eight and bottom eight teams were hammered down, and they showed it could be a long season for the stragglers.

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While footy fans love reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ of the 90s, there was a bigger gap between the haves-and-have-nots: in 1994, the bottom five teams (Parramatta, Western Suburbs Magpies, Eastern Suburbs Roosters, Gold Coast Seagulls, Balmain Tigers) won a combined 28 games. Meanwhile, minor premiers Canterbury-Bankstown had 18 wins from 22 games, followed by the North Sydney Bears (17 wins and a draw), eventual premiers Canberra (17 wins), and Manly Warringah (16 wins and a draw), while Brisbane (13 wins and a draw) finished a slightly distant fifth. Also during the 90s, teams like Parramatta, Balmain, Wests, Easts (for the first half of the decade), and the Seagulls/Chargers were anchored to the bottom of the ladder.

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The point is, the NRL have tried hard to level the playing field as much as possible, so speeding the game up unnecessarily could inadvertently widen the gap between the top and bottom, which may force the NRL to take action in the 2021/22 off-season.

To quote the famous running gag from Craig Ferguson’s The Late Late Show, the NRL needs to “Careful, Icarus.”

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