The National Rugby League has announced a clamp down this year on specific rules which have caused issue in the past, by making appropriate changes for this year's competitions. The rule changes, pushed forward by the NRL's competition committee, came into effect from the first round of trial games that took place last weekend.
Referees made significantly greater use of sending players to the sin-bin than in previous seasons, with 43 players receiving the treatment, compared to just 17 in the 2016 season and 15 in the 2015 season (source: NRL.com). Usually seen as a manner of punishing players for professional fouls, repeat infringements and dangerous play, teams have flouted the rules in recent seasons.
i) Dangerous Plays
Referees have been told to take into account the likelihood of the affected player returning to the match, when understanding how to penalise dangerous play offences such as high tackles, shoulder charges and lifting tackles.
Canberra back-rower Sia Soliola's late and ugly tackle in Round 20 last year which left Melbourne Storm fullback Billy Slater out cold and motionless on the ground was one of the scariest incidents of the season. However, that act, which was only penalised with a placement on report for Soliola by the referee and nothing further, spurred the competitions committee to make a change, in a bid to remedy issues which have stemmed from previous seasons.
Applying the new rules to a situation like that Soliola's, in that instance he would have been sent straight to the sin-bin as Slater did not partake in the rest of that game. This will help to provide referees with some discretion when assessing more of these grey areas, and means players can be placed on report, as well as penalised via sin-binning.
So rare has been the use of the send-off, that there has only been one in the NRL since the 2013 season.
ii) Repeat infringements on the goal-line
Referees have been directed to be harsher on teams by sending players to the sin-bin where they see repeated infringements by the defending side on their try-line.
A common irritancy to coaches has been the deliberate penalties conceded by teams on their own goal-line when defending in the 0-10 metre zone. This tactic, used to slow down the play-the-ball deliberately, has created problems with stifling the momentum of attacking sides, whilst providing defending teams with much-needed breathing room. It has also detracted from the quality of the game as a free-flowing spectacle, slowing the match speed down to re-start the tackle count.
Statistics from NRL.com have shown that despite only 10 percent of play-the-balls occurring in the 0-10 metre zone, an incredible 18 percent of penalties are awarded in this area. As committee member and Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary noted to NRL.com, "no team wants to be left a player short for 10 minutes so if referees start using the bin teams will be less willing to give away penalties". Expect this change to mitigate some defensive tactics used by teams on their own line.
Greenberg has issued a directive to the referees to police untidy play-the-balls by teams and subsequently enforce penalties. This has already had an impact in pre-season matches.
Illegal play-the-balls have been a problem instilled by players and inadequately administered by referees in the past few seasons. Section 11 of the NRL and International Rules and Interpretations provide that the tackled player must get to his feet, for the ball to touch the ground, and then for the tackled player to heel the ball backward to the receiving player.
Too often, especially last season, did it get to the point where many players would simply roll the ball between their legs instead of heeling after being tackled, or put the ball on the ground and just step over it. This made a mockery of the rules and the way the game should be played.
And while this is not a technical rule change, CEO Todd Greenberg's directive to referees to enforce it diligently this season has already made an impact. Only 40 seconds into the trial match between the Warriors and Storm in Rotorua last Saturday, was a penalty called against the Warriors for an incorrect play of the ball. And in a closed-doors trial match between the Storm and the Knights at AAMI Park prior to the pre-season, at least 12 penalties were called relating to ruck infringements. Serial offenders, which usually take the form of forwards with heavy work rates (tackles and carries) such as Andrew Fifita, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Sam Thaiday, Aaron Woods and the like, will have their work cut out for them.
If governed consistently, this should clean up messy ruck areas and also help to balance the playing field between teams who excel through the ruck because of quicker play, and those less effective at managing their defense through the middle.
Under the new rules, players can strip the ball in a one-on-one situation regardless of any previous contact made by teammates.
The one-on-one strip rule has always provided that a player can steal the ball from another in a one-on-one tackle, however, a penalty would result where a second defender made any contact with the tackled player in the lead-up to the ball being stripped out.
This rule has been of some concern over the past few seasons as more teams incur penalties even if the second defender had little to no involvement in the effect of the tackle and therefore placed no real responsibility on the ball carrier. From a pragmatic point of view, if a tackler drops off a tackle and relinquishes his contact with the tackled player, he should not be credited with still being involved in said tackle. Even though he has no control over the tackle player or minimal involvement (which would not result in the ball carrier dropping the ball), he is still counted as being involved. This new interpretation goes a small way to amending that.
The details divulged in the recent announcement by the NRL have been brief and therefore it has not as yet been incorporated into the 2018 rules. But, it will be of interest to see how this is interpreted by the referees in the first few rounds, specifically whether they will call the play based on whether there is any physical contact between the second defender and the tackled player, or whether they will only look at whether the end output is a one-on-one tackle, with initial input from the second defender being discounted. In either case, it at least starts to put some accountability in the hands of the ball carrier.
Call for consistency
The changes in some of the rulings and interpretation along with the stronger directives placed on the referees by Greenberg and the competition committee are a welcome and positive step to patrolling some of the laws abused by teams in recent seasons, or inconsistencies not adequately addressed by the referees previously.
As with any rules prescribed by the National Rugby League, fans will only call for consistency in its application and would like to see the tone set in the opening few rounds, right to the end of the finals series, so fewer controversial decisions can influence the results of games. This has been an issue the NRL has struggled with over several years, and it will be up to the competition committee to monitor how these rules are enforced during the early part of the season, identifying where any inconsistencies occur, and how they should be applied or interpreted to set the right precedent for the rest of the year.