NRL Round Table: New 18th man rule is the answer to a question rarely asked

Each week ESPN's resident NRL experts will take a look at the burning issues in rugby league and try to come up with the answers. Their opinions might not match yours, but they should certainly spark further debate on the latest conundrums facing the game we all love.

The NRL will introduce an 18th man rule from Round 5 which allows for an injury replacement player only when a team has lost three men to concussions, is this the solution?

Lucie: The recent decimation of NRL team benches shows the league is right to rush in the 18th man rule, but it only solves a minor part of the problem.

As the NRL takes an increasingly cautious approach to head injuries, clubs need insurance on match day. Cronulla Sharks' empty bench proved that in the second-half of last weekend's loss to Parramatta. But it was a rare occurrence, being only the second time three players from one team have failed HIAs in the 1420 NRL and State of Origin matches since 2014.

Having an emergency 18th man strikes the middle ground when it comes to managing concussions, as it prevents coaches from routing the system with strict parameters. But what of other injuries? The rule would not have helped Ricky Stuart nor Trent Robinson, who were left with only one player on the interchange bench through various injuries in round three.

Darren: This was a case of the NRL needing to be seen to be doing something about a problem which has been years in the making. Rugby League has always been a tough collision-based sport, with injuries an unfortunate byproduct of almost every game. In the rough old days of the 60s, 70s and 80s, each team only had two players on the bench and they had to have played at least half a game in a lower grade to be there. Fatigue played a much greater part in the game, with men running around on weary legs having far less impact.

The interchange system was introduced for player welfare, but conversely, it it has also had a detrimental effect, by increasing the intensity of the collision. We now have absolute specimens of athletic endeavor charging at each other at full steam for 15 minutes before resting up and returning to the fray for more. With greater concern being shown for head injuries of late, any sign of concussion is rightly treated with the utmost care. With these bigger collisions comes more numerous and more severe head knocks.

So, how can the NRL better protect its players and yet make sure that the game itself isn't compromised? It certainly isn't by wallpapering over the problem with a solution that might never come into play. Dropping the number of interchanges, reducing the distance between the ruck and the defensive line are possible ways to reduce the intensity of the collision, but most solutions would seem to detract from the spectacle that the fans have come to love.

Is the introduction of more technology the answer to picking up crucial missed calls by match officials?

Lucie: For the biggest blunders, yes. "We got it wrong" are four words we hear far too often from the NRL about refereeing decisions, whether it be an on-field call or the Bunker.

In round three we saw two massive misses that could have been overturned by using technology, and they won't be the last from human error. But while there's scope for more technology, like for forward passes, the danger lies in the game becoming over officiated. So the answer could be in how technology is utilised.

There's already stoppages for the Captain's Challenge and Bunker reviews, which are both designed to eradicate the referee howler. But crucial calls still fall through the cracks and they need to be addressed in real time, and that's where better technology comes into play.

Darren: There once was a glorious time in all sports when every player and every fan knew that the referee was always right. Even when a decision was obviously wrong, everyone would get on with the game and accept that match officials are human and what went against you one week was just as likely to be in your favour the following week.

The introduction of sports betting meant that every poor decision a match official made had the potential to be viewed as a corrupt one. A punter with big money riding on a result is going to be far less forgiving of a decision which costs them a victory. The introduction of the all-angles, super slow-motion, countless replays meant that every call was being dissected down to the split second and half millimetre. Has the Bunker really improved the game? Will more technology make the game better? The search for officiating perfection is a never ending illusion.

Have the Roosters' premiership chances gone with Luke Keary's season ending ACL injury?

Lucie: The Sydney Roosters will still be the NRL heavyweights without the star playmaker, but can't win the competition with their depleted roster.

This season will be a test of depth for Trent Robinson's outfit, with rookies Sam Walker and Drew Hutchinson left to fill the Keary-sized hole with Lachlan Lam also out injured.

His influence on the Roosters' game can't be understated, so an experienced halfback is needed to keep the Tricolours in the hunt for another title - especially with the bulk of their leadership group sidelined.

They moved Kyle Flanagan along to the Bulldogs late last year, and if they hadn't, it could have been a different story. But stranger things have happened, if any team can fight their way to finals footy it's the Roosters.

Darren: Is there anyone, anywhere, even the most ardent of Bulldogs supporters, still questioning the Panthers over their decision to make Matt Burton play out the final year of his contract? What happened to the Roosters on the weekend is the perfect example of why a club needs as much depth as it can muster in the key positions.

It remains to be seen just how good Sam Walker can be, once thrust into the enormous boots left vacant by Keary. Even if he is as sharp as the scouting reports have suggested, it is still an enormous weight on his shoulders to take on the playmaking duties at the Roosters. Walker will be surrounded by some superstar players and be guided by one of the game's most astute coaches, but in short, no, the Roosters can't win the 2021 Premiership without Keary.