Rugby league debates what really matters as NRL’s war of the rules resumes
Last week in rugby league, few things mattered more than a kick finding touch.
According to an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday morning, Rugby League Commission member Wayne Pearce wanted the league to consider punishing teams if they found the sideline with a kick by handing their opponents a seven-tackle set.
The story prompted Rugby League Players Association director and Storm forward Christian Welch to unleash at the code’s rule-makers.
“Please just leave our game alone,” he said.
“The tension, grind, pressure and game management [are] almost already gone.
“Would love the [Australian Rugby League] commission [to pursue] less gimmicking with the rules and more focus on bigger-picture strategy.”
Such was the controversy about the proposal, a follow-up story on NRL.com on the subject was even pulled in an apparent act of censorship. (Another story on the delay for the NRLW season has gone missing as well.)
Apart from being nuanced and considered, the story made the point that a rule change either way didn’t really matter, as kickers have found touch this season barely more than once per game. As Adam Reynolds said earlier last week, he’d prefer to keep the ball in play and pin an opponent to their line anyway.
But the issue revived the debate about just what the game should look like beyond 2021.
The future NRL
Over the weekend, Panthers’ backrower Viliame Kikau raved about the Eels’ gutsy victory over the Storm the previous night.
“I think the game last night pretty much shows us what finals is going to be like,” he told ABC Sport after his team beat Wests.
“Very grinding sort of footy, they just went set for set with Melbourne, and we’re really looking forward to that.”
Former referee and now Wests Tigers consultant Gavin Badger echoed the sentiment.
“The game is supposed to be a battle of attrition, a battle for field position and a battle to win the arm wrestle,” he posted on Twitter.
If possession is nine-tenths of the law, rugby league lore says it’s even more important in the NRL.
Completion dominates commentators’ discussions and half-time stat displays.
Avoiding handling errors, the thinking goes, means completing sets and winning the battle for field position.
But recent analysis shows the old notion alone doesn’t translate to success.
Rugby league’s essence
On Sunday, it was the bottom-placed Canterbury — who leads the competition in completion rate — against Premiership contender Manly, sitting at the foot of the completion percentage table.
The form held and Manly, despite completing just 73 per cent of their sets, overpowered the Bulldogs and their 82 per cent completion rate, the score finishing 36 to 18.
The pattern of completion not being linked to success holds across more than just a single Sunday afternoon match, and the Bulldogs’ sorry season.
At the level of aggregate match statistics, rugby league analysis website PythagoNRL has found through linear regression (that is, maths) that the following categories correlate to a team’s success:
kick return metres
line break assists
dummy half run metres
kick metres, and
forced drop outs.
Indeed, Manly dominated the Bulldogs on Sunday in almost every one of these categories.
The path for reform
This list of statistical categories reflects what most fans take from watching the game. Territory is important, so too the integrity of the line and securing repeat sets.
But it also highlights how dangerous experimenting with the ruck contest and offside rules has been.
Every category, with the possible exception of kick return metres, is indirectly influenced by the speed of the play-the-ball and the retreat of the defensive line.
That the NRL, armed with the best analysts and data available, would bring about radical change through the introduction then expansion of set restarts without first trials and without consultation with players is surprising.
Two days after the Pearce article was spiked on NRL.com, NRL CEO Andrew Abdo provided assurances himself that no rule change proposals would be trialled in the final round this weekend and changes would only be discussed in the off-season.
Despite this season’s criticism about score blowouts and a lack of player consultation, he was adamant recent changes to the game have been positive.
Abdo promised that the league was in a “phase of wanting to consolidate” and rule reviews and changes would be discussed in the off-season.
The question is to what extent this period of consolidation will involve players and fans.
The removal of the NRL.com story suggests the league prefers the debate to remain in the boardroom.