18 Jun 2020

Hemmings Way: Re-writing the rules

Rugby League has long been a sport that prides itself on rarely being afraid to innovate and experiment.

There have been dozens of changes to the laws of the game since its inception in 1895.

It is hard to judge which are the most significant, which ones have stood the test of time and, indeed, which ones have been accepted universally across the entire sport.

That was one of my big bugbears during my time involved with the game – there seemed to be one set of rules for the Super League, another for the NRL in Australia, and yet another when we played internationals! Confusing.

Every year the rules are changed or tweaked – as different interpretations are introduced – in an effort to make the game more open, quick and attractive for the viewing public.

In 2019 the shot clock was introduced to speed up the pace of play. That appeared to work with game time being significantly reduced. 

For 2020, though, 12 months on,  even that has been tinkered with - teams now have 30 seconds maximum to feed a scrum (reduced from 35 seconds in 2019) and five seconds less – 25 from 30 last year –  to get the ball back in play from a goal-line drop out.

If you Google ‘Rugby League Rules’ (other search engines are available!) you will be amazed at the rule changes that have been adopted over the years.

Now – and quite understandably – the rules for the resumption of the 2020 season are being looked at again.

This time though not for the sake of making the game simply more attractive, but in the name of safety as we try to get going again in these testing and trying times.

Nothing is certain yet – but it appears that top of the agenda is the re-start rule currently under way in the NRL.

Infringements around the ruck are now not penalised in Australia. Simply, a whistle sounds in the stadium indicating that the attacking team has a fresh set of six.

Similarly, if the ball goes out on the full, or it hits the referee or trainer on the field, a simple play-the-ball will also replace a scrum.

Medical evidence says the play the ball will considerably reduce the exposure to, or the threat of, transmission of Covid-19.

Job done you’d expect, and quite right too. In Australia they have had a fraction of the fatalities we have had in the UK from the virus and they are adopting this safety-first procedure.

If you’ve watched, like I have, the NRL on its resumption these past couple of weeks, I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the games. There are fewer breaks in play and the pace of the game has improved – but most of all it feels safer.

There are, of course, one or two doubters, mainly from the coaching fraternity, who don’t want the rule coming in here. 

Why not?

Is it because the team that they control simply couldn’t cope with the extra demands placed on them, particularly in the forwards where the big men will tire more quickly?  Obviously if you don’t have too many forwards light on their feet, they could quickly be found out.

But surely what is more important is the health and safety of the players – and the sport moving forward – so that should take priority over all other considerations.

Furthermore, if promotion and relegation is off the agenda for this year (there’s another possible change) so what? Gentlemen, your jobs should be safe!

Barrie McDermott and Terry O’Connor always used to joke that the laws of the game were merely ‘guidelines’ that don’t have to be followed at all times!!

I wonder what the Disciplinary Committee has to say about that?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favour of change for change sake, but in these abnormally strange times we must tread very carefully.

The re-start rule they’ve adopted Down Under looks pretty good to me and ticks the box on two counts: match safety and it appeals as a spectacle.

Despite the odd voice of objection, I hope we take it on board when we come back – hopefully sometime soon.

Stay safe again everyone.