How long is a half of rugby league?
Most fans would say 40 minutes.
But players, coaches and no doubt media executives know the truth: between 42 and 52 minutes, unless there’s a major injury (more on that later).
There are two ways of dragging out the action. Not only are there times the clock stops, but many periods during a game the clock continues even where players are resting.
Apart from injuries, scoring — especially the delay around goal kicking — is the main source of slowdowns.
But rule changes in 2021 are also eating into players’ breaks.
The need for rest is why the decisions this year to do away with scrums off kicks into touch, introduce set restarts for offsides and accelerate bunker reviews of tries are so significant.
It’s difficult to measure speed in rugby league, but perhaps the simplest way is the number and regularity of play the balls. A game feels fast when, like the best Origin tussles, sides careen from end to end, alternating completed sets.
It’s still early in the season, but so far most games in 2021 (purple) have more play the balls within a shorter overall duration than matches in 2019 and 2020 (grey).
Where’s the handbrake?
The new rules mean games can pass in the blink of an eye. No 30-point half of football in the past three years has expired more quickly than the first period of the Eels and Tigers in round four.
It took just 44 minutes. A six-try half would more typically take two or three minutes more.
But cutting back on scrums and offside penalties means the players face more relentless work.
Fatigue fuels mistakes, so keeping players out of rugby league’s red zone has long been the game’s finest art.
Once upon a time, getting a breather was as simple as finding touch with fifth-tackle kick, but things in 2021 are different.
In the compelling round two clash between the Eels and Storm, midway through the second period, so spent were the Storm forwards, not a single one touched the ball during a set.
On the last play the ball, Ryan Papenhuyzen stayed down after a borderline crusher tackle.
The Storm: one of the finest sides in the competition, broken by the new rules.
It’s no wonder Papenhuyzen (and Clint Gutherson earlier in the same match) stayed down.
But a bit of gamesmanship is just the start of the options to stay in control of the game’s tempo.
And sides’ skippers appear to be making captain’s challenges earlier.
The conundrum with the new rules is how to stay in the game but save some energy for the final 15 minutes.
There’s evidence that teams have been struggling to get through to the end of both halves.
The pursuit of speed has its risks, however.
The NRL’s decision to increase the tempo of the game could in fact have the opposite impact.
Injuries have been a prominent feature of 2021.
No half this year has taken longer than the 56 minutes of the first period between Souths and Manly in round two.
Sadly, three of those minutes were spent watching Andrew Davey writhing in agony after he tore an ACL.
It’s not clear whether the new rules are creating conditions where injuries are more likely, but it’s clear tempo of the game and its very watchability are adversely affected every time a player goes down.
The plight of players like Davey serves as a reminder that speed — on the clock, on the ground or in pursuit of either— can be dangerous.