Six again monster given extra legs in NRL rule changes

Referee Gerard Sutton in action. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

The NRL will introduce eight rule changes for the 2021 premiership, all designed to make the game more entertaining. The two that stand out are the six again call for offside infringements and the two-point field goal, for shots taken outside the 40 metre zone. Both changes threaten to fundamentally change the game, rather than offer a game-improving tweak. Emboldened by changes made last season, the NRL has thrown caution to the wind and it could well backfire.

In the midst of last season's fight to have NRL return to the playing fields during the pandemic, the NRL made a couple of rule changes. Peter V'Landys, who was battling with broadcasters to come up with a new deal which would compensate them for a shortened season, said that the changes were necessary to make the game more attractive to viewers. He indicated that the broadcasters weren't happy with the way the game was progressing and were using that as a reason to demand a greater price reduction.

At the time everyone was right behind V'Landys, as he went on to become the hero of the NRL's pandemic survival. Among the changes, the game would lose a referee and ruck infringements would be policed by awarding an immediate six more tackles, rather than a penalty. Initially it appeared to be a great move, with coaches forced to instruct their players to abandon their much-maligned wrestling tactics. As the season wore on, one glaring problem emerged -- the completely arbitrary and inconsistent way in which the six again calls were being made.

Possession is king in rugby league. Highly tuned athletes are running flat out at each other, putting their bodies in the way to stop opponents and constantly fighting against fatigue and a physical battering. When given back-to-back-to-back sets of six tackles, any team becomes virtually unstoppable. The whole momentum of a game can be determined by the referee's interpretation of what constitutes a slow play-the-ball. Inconsistency, through whatever reason, can prove deadly to the team on the receiving end. In 2021, we'll have referees calling six again for players sneaking within the ten metres. It threatens to become a farce, with teams being run ragged by mountains of possession.

There comes a point where the game will be too fast for its own good. The fittest of players need moments during a game to catch their breath. Constant tackle count restarts exhaust the best defences. Proponents of the changes will say that teams who are offside or infringing in the ruck, deserve all they get, but it's the inconsistency that riles the fans. Your team can be run off their feet in the first half, and well and truly out of the game before some six again relief is thrown their way. Awarding a penalty seems to require more consideration by the referee than simply yelling six again and waving the arm.

Making long-range field goals worth two points is simply a brain explosion of an idea akin to the supershot in netball and free-hit no balls in cricket. It's an unnecessary change to the fundamentals of the game. I'm not sure how players lining up to have a crack at a field goal from outside 40 metres in any way improves the spectacle. Almost everyone agrees that field goal shoot-outs in Golden Point are a blight on the game.

Peter V'Landys insists that the game will be better for the changes.

"The message from the fans and our broadcasters has been clear - the game became too predictable and the balance between attack and defence had gone too far in favour of defence," V'Landys said in a press release.

"Our changes last year were successful in addressing some of those challenges and the changes announced today will take the element of unpredictability and entertainment a step further."

What these rule changes do is take the game a step further from the contest we all know and love. The referee will have way too much control over the momentum of a game. Fans will be further aggrieved when they see their team exhausted and unable to contend. The push to appease broadcasters and win new audiences risks alienating the fans who have followed and loved the game their whole lives.