In a move virtually unprecedented in professional sports in a year that is absolutely without precedent, the Australian Rugby League Commission have codified major changes to the way the game will be officiated for the remainder of the 2020 season and beyond.
The NRL will drop its two-referee system and return to a single referee when the game resumes on 28 May, a change that appears to be part-driven by cost reduction and part-driven by populism. The commission has also approved a rule change that will allow a referee to award a new set of six to an attacking team who have fallen victim to a ruck infringement.
It had been flagged in the media leading up to the announcement, but it is nevertheless a shocking move with the season to resume in two weeks. Project Apollo, charged with facilitating the game’s return, has seemingly taken over the game’s law book and decided to make both a major rule change and a major officiating change midseason. They did so with little consultation.
The Professional Rugby League Match Officials association called it “disrespectful” while they would “not rule out” the prospect of industrial action. Players have had little say with no representatives on Project Apollo.
The ratification of these decisions will have a significant impact on the competition.
The move to a single referee in the middle of a campaign brings into question the purity of a competition that already had integrity concerns based around a shortened season and the maintaining of competition points from the first two rounds.
A mid-season rule change removing a penalty and replacing it with a six-again scenario – with little consultation – crunches any pretence of the season maintaining anything near its integrity.
The ARLC seems to be having an each-way bet. They are banking on continuity by ensuring the two pre-break rounds count but have used the suspension of play to fundamentally alter the nature of the game with the changes.
The aims are certainly noble, at least at face value. The league is rightly trying to save on costs during a period of significant financial strain and there appears to be a genuine desire to speed up the game and eliminate wrestling in the ruck.
But the moves are counter to each other and the rule change simply has not been stress-tested. They should theoretically lead to fewer penalties, but that does not necessarily equate to a greater flow. A single referee is sure to create more messiness in the ruck. It will lead to a greater attempt to not only wrestle but also to play at the ball.
The move to a single referee also seems to miss the primary issue many had with the second referee, which was the issue of primacy and standing. When first introduced, both referees were given equal stature. This then moved to a dominant/pocket referee scenario. The pocket official still had a whistle though, and would at times be the dominant referee.
The switch to one referee is stunning, but it is the out-of-the-box six again rule that provides the prospect of creating the most drama. It is essentially creating an option between no penalty and a penalty that has not, in any serious manner, been tried since the invention of the differential penalty in the mid-1980s.
The NRL is bullish about the positives the rule may bring about, but there seems to have been little thought put into how this rule can and will be manipulated. There is very little disadvantage to giving away an infringement early in a set. Teams coming off their own line would much prefer a penalty than a six-again to clear via a kick for touch. Similarly teams defending their own line clinging to a small lead have little disincentive not to infringe, particularly if early in the tackle count and they have not reached a threshold for repeated infringements. There has been talk of repeated infringements resulting in a sin bin, but it is unclear whether the referee will still be able to award a penalty for a single ruck infringement.
These are major changes for the NRL. They have been made for the right reasons but only time will tell if they were the right decisions.