Premiers Melbourne were looking more and more formidable in Thursday night’s Parramatta storm.
Clint Gutherson’s Eels team was on the rack, forwards exhausted, facing a drop out minutes before half time.
But what the Parramatta fullback did next says everything about rugby league’s widely discussed and often criticised rule changes.
Down getting his ankle strapped, “Gutho” winked.
Now it’s not clear how bad his ankle injury really was.
He was hobbling a few minutes later but came back after half time without a bandage.
What is indisputable is that the treatment he received bought time for his teammates to recover.
That’s despite a new rule brought in this season designed to prevent players going down injured and the trainer calling for the ref to stop the play.
From now on, any time this happens, the player must be replaced or leave the field for two minutes.
But on Thursday night, because Gutherson went down before the ref blew his whistle, he was able to receive treatment — and hold up the game — without punishment.
Whether the treatment was genuinely needed or not, it’s the latest loophole around the reformed rules the NRL has instituted in the past year or so.
Tracking rule changes
In a little over 12 months, the NRL has brought in more than half a dozen other major rule changes:
- Scrum locations can be chosen by the team with the feed
- Players must not tackle a player in the air catching a ball
- The 20/40 kick (the exotic variation of the 40/20 that has been ignored)
- Set restarts, not penalties, for ruck infringements
- A play the ball instead of a scrum for the ball finding touch
- The two-point field goal from more than 40 metres out
- Set restarts for 10-metre offside infringements
The latter change has prompted concern from some within the rugby league community the game may get too fast, leading to potential injury, putting a premium on fitness and generating scrappy play and lopsided contests.
The NRL is pleased with the results so far, however. NRL head of football elite competition Graham Annesley said this week the introduction has led to more compliance with the 10 metres because players get less rest compared to what they would have had from giving up a penalty last year.
“I’d like to think that’s because the intro of six again means that if you give away that possession, that additional six tackles, you don’t get any break, you’re constantly defending,” he said.
But the set restart rule remains controversial.
Last year, the better teams conceded more set restarts than they won. Teams still appear happy to concede this year if it helps slow down the ruck. Melbourne conceded a set restart out of Parramatta’s very first hit up on Thursday night.
Restarts bring new challenges
Set restarts are having an impact on the type of football that’s being played.
According to the figures shared by the NRL Boom Rookies podcast this week, teams’ immediate reaction is for more conservative attacking play. There were 706 one-pass hit-ups in round 1, up from 617 in round 1 last season. The all-time high was 754, in round 3 last year when the set restart rule was introduced.
But it also provides a new test for the game’s tempo managers.
Thursday night showed Melbourne will miss rugby league’s legendary conductor Cameron Smith.
Because there are fewer ways a team can get a rest, moves like Gutherson’s treatment, use of the captain’s challenge, and even approaching the ref to debate calls will take on greater significance this year.
As Storm coach Craig Bellamy said in the wake of his team’s loss against Gutherson’s Eels, “without Cameron [Smith] there we’ve still got to learn our way a little bit”.
“We lost our way a little bit last week but we managed to steady the ship, whereas tonight I don’t think we steadied it that well,” he said.
Coaches and players are always concocting strategies to push the limits of the rulebook for their benefit.
So while the rugby league world comes to terms with the latest tweaks, the tension between the home side, the visitors, the rule makers, the referees and the fans is part of what keeps rugby league fresh.
Going back to Thursday night’s wink, Gutherson may have outsmarted the new trainer rule.
But Melbourne scored a minute later anyway.