NRL coaches have defeated the set restart rule and the game is better for it

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Paul Suttor raised the issue of speed in the game with the NRL experts yesterday. It appears the majority were reasonably content with the current tempo, citing 2021 as something of a bridge too far when it came to the expansive style and sheer pace that we saw in many of the matches, particularly late in the season.

In 2021, the Australian Rugby League Commission made no secret of its desire to quicken the product, expanding and solidifying the use of the set restart rule.

Alongside the removal of scrums previously set when a kick or tackled player crossed the sideline and shot clock count downs for line-goal drop-outs, players these days have fewer opportunities than ever to stall things for a moment and suck in a few deep breaths that might allow them to get to the next contest in reasonable shape.

Modern rugby league has become something of a rush. Players must move briskly to scrums and drop-outs and when they face up to nine or ten consecutive tackles in defence, the entire exercise becomes a chaotic scramble. Without excessive bunker intervention, the matches actually fly past incredibly quickly, with only the dreaded and tedious video referee dragging games out to the two-hour mark.

In the oddest of ironies, the players no doubt enjoy such video referee delays when under pressure and requiring a break in play that could potentially alter momentum, while at the same time disliking the frequent over-analysis and questionable interpretation taking place just as much as their coaches and the average fan.

The clear result of changes that began as far back as 2016 and the newer ones expanded and streamlined during last year’s season has been more points and significantly so.

In 2018 there were 40.56 points scored per game in the NRL. In 2019 that figure fell slightly to 39.3 before rebounding northwards a little in 2020 to 41.96. With Peter V’landys and the Commission keen to reinvent the product presented to fans after the early days of the pandemic had caused a cessation of play, the set restart was implemented.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

By the end of 2020, it was rampant.

All sport is won and lost on momentum and the new rule made it near impossible to shift, as teams rumbled downfield, with a constantly retreating defence incapable of producing any line-speed in order to thwart the pending danger. As a result, in 2021 margins of victory blew out, thrashings were common and by season’s end, and total of 45.87 points per game had been scored. Excluding finals matches, that average was 48.84.

Most alarmingly, the gap between the top teams in the race for the finals and the battling also-rans became vast, to the point of embarrassment for those on the receiving end. Whilst it might be easy to simply argue that it is the task of the struggling clubs to get better, that does little to address the impact such drubbings and subsequent fan disinterest has on a club’s bottom line.

The rule went too far and after coaches began exploiting it by instructing teams to concede a penalty early in sets whilst in excellent field position, happy to defend for seven tackles rather than concede early metres and potentially be faced with two or three consecutive sets, the need for change became urgent.

The Commission responded in 2022 with a tweak that saw a traditional penalty awarded to attacking teams inside their own 40-metre area, rather than an automatic set restart. The result has been stunning on the scoreboard. At the completion of Round 4, just 36.03 points per game have been scored, four matches have resulted in less than 20 points and just two individual teams have passed the 40-point barrier, after 53 did so during 2021.

That 2021 home-and-away season average of 48.86 points per game is almost 13 points higher than we have seen across the opening month.

Personally, I actually prefer it, with some of the gritty defence on show thus far rarely seen last season, outside of matches between the absolute best teams. Yet what are V’landys and his team making of the data considering their determined effort to speed up the game and produce more tries for fans to cheer?

Will there be an admission of fault and open dissatisfaction with their decision to rethink the six-again rule? Have the coaches once again one-upped the administrators after cleverly manipulating the rule in 2021 and now fear the set restart far less?

Most likely, the coaches have played this one well and despite something of a correction in scoring totals thus far, less cricket scores and 40-point hammerings will have little impact on how most people continue to enjoy their rugby league.

In fact, there might even be a few like me who enjoy it more.

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