Rule changes could be a ‘turning point’ for rugby league

Referee Ben Thaler conducts coin toss

It’s undoubtedly quickened the game up Down Under – and the six-again rules look to have done the same in Super League.

The set restart – which enables referees to award a fresh set of six instead of a penalty for certain offences around the ruck area – is the headline change to the rules since rugby league returned on these shores earlier this month.

Although we’ve seen blow out victories in all but two of the seven games so far, there is a general feeling amongst coaches and players that the change will be for the better.

Over recent years, the focus on completion rates and sportsmanship around the play the ball, including lying on in the tackle and deliberately making plays for penalties against players stuck behind the ruck, has stifled the creativity and quality of the rugby played.

 

Warrington captain Chris Hill said: “With the rule changes I think it’s sparked the game up a bit and we’re seeing a lot more entertaining stuff.

“Hopefully in a few years time we’ll look back at this as a turning point in Rugby League.”

The rule changes definitely benefit the playmakers in the the team, increasing the speed of the game and giving more freedom.

St Helens coach Kristian Woolf said prior to the Super League restart: “The players in the 1/6/7/9 positions are going to enjoy it. There’s a bit more freedom around the ruck, the speed at the play the ball, and it creates more fatigue.

“Instead of getting six plays to attack, they’re going to get 8/9/10 plays. If you play in those key positions, the rule really suits you. In the NRL, it’s certainly brought those players in to the game more and those are the ones that are standing out.”

St Helens’ Alex Walmsley celebrates scoring a try in their thumping of Leeds at Headingley on Sunday.

Woolf also said it will likely change the way that teams recruit players moving forward.

For Hull KR coach Tony Smith, it’s not the change of rules that he says will improve their quality of rugby – it’s the removal of the threat of relegation!

He said: “It makes a huge difference (not having relegation). We’re more likely to see teams try to win games rather than try not to lose them, which makes for better rugby league.

“I find it far more entertaining than the stuff we’ve been dishing up for the last five years, the five drives and a kick to the corner.

“I’m hoping all teams play a bit more. I’ve been encouraged with what I’ve seen since the restart.”

The other significant rule change, albeit prompted out of COVID-19 related necessity rather than a desire to improve the game, has been the removal of scrums from Super League.

This hasn’t been replicated in the NRL, who have continued to play with scrums since its restart in May.

A Twitter poll conducted by the BBC’s rugby league man Dave Woods asked whether fans would like to continue without scrums permanently.

Interestingly, 64% of the 1,512 responders said they think the game is better with no scrums.

Scrums have long been a bone of contention in rugby league, particularly since hookers were banned from striking at the ball, while nowadays, scrums are made up of a tactical selection of players rather than the forwards, and are ultimately just a formality in the game.

There are those that argue that scrums provide a good opportunity to create attacking set plays and there is the argument for tradition, but for me too, they can go.

It will be interesting to see what player opinion is if the rule is floated as a permanent one – scrums are no doubt used by players to get their breath back at times when games are played at a break-neck speed.

But if they are happy for them to go, then so be it.

Contested scrums are never likely to make a return and given that a scrum comes following a mistake by one side, such as a knock-on, you may question whether they should be given the opportunity to win the ball back – although with my Tony Smith hat on, it may well encourage more risks to be taken during play, knowing that if you do knock-on or pass forward, you may be able to get the ball back!

Whatever happens with the rules, and the key issue is ensuring they are implemented worldwide – it’s painful to this writer, and I hope the majority of rugby league fans, that we’re now 12 years since a regular World Cup returned in 2008, and our sport is still played with a number of variations across the world.

It’s about time the powers that be got together and sang off the same hymn sheet – for the good of the sport.

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