NRL risks return to unlimited tackle rugby league

The ARLC has ratified the NRL's plan to return to a single referee for the restart of the 2020 season on May 28. After insisting that two whistles were better than one across three decades, it has decided to return to a single pea-blower, based on the truism that one whistle is decidedly cheaper than two.

The logic behind the introduction of a second referee in 2009 was that the ever-increasing pace of the game was too much for one man to control. It coincided with a greater emphasis on slowing down the ruck as coaches looked for ways to stunt their opponents' attack.

The system took some time to settle in as referees adjusted to sharing the load, before things were simplified with the "pocket referee" designation, which better defined the role of the secondary on-field official. The "pocket referee" would mark out and police the 10-metre rule, while the lead referee would stand over the ruck, yelling at players to get off the tackled player. The effectiveness of two referees is debatable; it certainly hasn't seen the ruck area cleaned up and refereeing mistakes in general play continued to come.

To help the single referee maintain control over the ruck, the NRL will also introduce a rule which allows a restart of the six tackles if an infringement occurs. This negates the need for a penalty and a tap restart. ARLC chairman Peter V'landys was optimistic about the changes.

"This decision will significantly reduce the number of stoppages in games and showcase more open unstructured play for the benefit of fans," V'landys said.

"Giving the attacking team six more tackles for a ruck infringement will be a significant deterrent to slowing the ruck."

"No team is going to want to defend multiple sets of tackles without a stoppage in play. This is the greatest disincentive for what has become habitual ruck infringements."

One of the main reasons for ruck infringements, especially when a team is desperately defending their line, is that any slowing of the ruck allows valuable seconds for a defence to reset. A penalty allows the defending team more time, making it better prepared to prevent a try. A quick play-the-ball with six more tackles will reduce that reset time, which should benefit the attacking team. That's the theory anyway.

What we could see, as coaches scramble for ways around the new rule, is an even greater emphasis on holding the player with the ball down. The directive might be to hold on for the maximum time possible, as six more tackles is still better than a try and better than two points from a penalty. In really desperate situations: Don't let the player go at all, force a penalty, risk a sin-binning; anything to prevent a try.

The other danger is a virtual return to unlimited tackles, especially if referees strictly enforce ruck infringements using the new rule. There would easily be a reason to wave six again following just about every tackle. The team with the ball could be waved on until it finally scored a try against the exhausted defence. It would be the Dragons of the 1960s all over again.

The referees themselves aren't so happy about the changes, after the decision was made without consulting them. Their union (PRLMO) is considering taking industrial action against the NRL. PRLMO chairman Silvio Del Vecchio told the Sydney Morning Herald his members were shocked by the move.

"Which employer in Australia changes the entire structure of the department without consulting the employees?" Del Vecchio said.

"We are determined that [the league will resume when planned], and will be officiated under the current model that has been tested and successful for more than a decade."

V'landys further explained that the changes were mainly in reaction to a poll which overwhelmingly indicated that fans were sick of the two referee system.

"When I became Chairman, I said I would listen to the fans. Last year we conducted a fan survey and the overwhelming majority of fans said they wanted to go back to one referee and their views should be taken on board," V'landys said.

Those same fans will be the first to let him know if the single referee and ruck rule changes don't meet their exacting expectations. You can't please all of the people all of the time, but you can save a few dollars along the way.