NRL rule changes have had unintended consequences

The law of unintended consequences operates in the NRL.
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Changes to the rules this year have produced unexpected outcomes, both positive and negative.

Exhibit A: The NRL announced $20,000 to $40,000 fines for teams guilty of failing to substitute concussed players.

This will deter players from diving (football’s curse) as well as reduce penalties (rugby union’s obsession).

A ball carrier who feigns injury from incidental contact with the head in order to attract the attention of the video referee and win a penalty with be loath to do so, knowing he must be replaced immediately, or cost his club a hefty fine.

The NRL did not foresee this and were honest enough to admit it.

Nathan McGuirk, the NRL’s general manager of football operations, said: “That wasn’t debated at all in relation to either the introduction of the concussion rules or the penalties recently announced. You may be right, though, that it is an added benefit to the strong stance taken. Time will tell.”

A negative corollary of this is players, reluctant to be replaced, will attempt to hide the effects of a head knock, especially in the upcoming State of Origin series.

Exhibit B: The NRL’s ban on the cannonball tackle.

When the NRL rules committee banned the third defender attacking the knees of an upright ball carrier, their de facto leader, Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett, was also focussed on his long-term obsession – faster rucks.

By penalising this tackle, they sought to eliminate the wrestle.

The theory was the third man coming in low produced a tangle of bodies on the ground, with defenders peeling off sequentially and therefore slowing down the play-the-ball.

Instead, the rule change has produced slower rucks, more penalties and serious injury.

Significantly, the proportion of three-man tackles, compared to two and one-man tackles, has not changed in five years.

It did for the first two rounds, when teams were adjusting to the cannonball ban and two-man tackles prevailed.

Now, when two men hold the ball carrier upright, the third man lifts his leg to unbalance him. The referee then calls “held” and the play-the-ball proceeds.

According to Sports Data, the statistical services company relied upon by coaches for over a decade, the new rule has resulted in fewer fast play-the-balls (less than two seconds) and more slow play-the-balls (above five seconds) than in 2013 and earlier years.

Based on projected trends and allowing for the fact there are about four minutes of extra play this year (via quick taps, less time for line drop-outs and no time off in the final five minutes), there will be slightly less fast rucks and significantly more slow ones, involving three-man tackles.

In other words, forcing the third man into the tackle around the ball carrier’s shorts, rather than bringing him to the ground quickly, has produced slower rucks.

In fact, the biggest single factor now in the speed of the ruck – the last contest in rugby league other than the short kick-off – is the referee.

His call of “held” if the ball carrier is upright, or “tackle” if he is on the ground, determines the speed of the play-the-ball. It doesn’t matter if one, two or three men enter a tackle, the referee’s call is the biggest determinant in the speed of the ruck.

They are calling “held” quicker, perhaps because they know the NRL wants faster rucks and more tries.

However, referees’ calls vary over the eight games played each round, and within a game, because there are two referees officiating.

This leads to the frustration by players and coaches and it’s no surprise the Australian captain, Cameron Smith, has called for the return of one referee, following the smooth running of the recent Anzac Test.

Nor do faster rucks produce good football, because it results in dummy-half runs. Coaches have countered by compressing the defence around the play-the-ball area.

The NRL rules committee should study the 2004 American science-fiction psychological thriller The Butterfly Effect, which explores how small initial differences lead to unforeseen consequences over time.

Like the plot of the movie, rugby league has the capacity to go back in time and inhabit its former self. On the 1922 Kangaroos tour of England, the Australian team’s co-managers were Billy Cann and George Ball.

The Poms poked fun at the Aussies, nicknaming the squad “the Cannonballs”.

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