The most interesting rule change recently agreed to by the National Rugby League is the 20/40. The process to get to the decision seems administratively questionable regardless of how you feel about the actual outcome. More interestingly, it could have a real impact on how the Raiders, and other elite teams, play the game.
Over the years the best teams in the competition have been able to use their defence like a weapon. Kick to the corner, and then use the full force of your defence to keep teams in their own corner. The attacking angles are removed, and teams end up kicking from around their own 30 after four or five of the hardest carries. The ‘dominant’ side gets to start near halfway, and beautiful rugby league is made.
No one keeps statistics on how often teams forced their opposition into kicks from their own end, but you could almost guarantee the league leaders in 2019 were the Storm, the Roosters and the Raiders. All used a good kick and a great chase (usually led by Jack Wighton and Elliot Whitehead in the Raiders case) to put the screws on their opposition.
Sidebar: Some stats do paint a bit of a picture for us. The Storm and Raiders led the competition in “weighted kicks” (as opposed to long kicks, or attacking kicks) according to Fox Sports – which shows their intent ton trapping teams in those corners. The Roosters, Raiders and the Storm also led the competition in kick return metres, suggesting they weren’t the teams being trapped in a corner.
The league has thrown a small spanner in convention by the way of the 20/40, which operates the same way as the 40/20, just with different start and end points.
Before we get into that, it’s important to say a few things about the decision-making process. First let me say that its pleasing to see the league to demonstrate that it’s focused on finding ways to improve the game. I don’t think we constantly need change, but if it’s targeted at solving key problems, or finding ways to make the game more attractive, I fully support this approach.
I am ambivalent about the 20/40 itself, but the process the NRL undertook to come to this point could have been improved. It’s not clear what the intent of this decision was, and there’s no clear problem it’s addressing – in fact you might argue it’s reducing a good thing (smart footy and good defence). The best argument for it is that it will add a bit of chaos and unpredictability into a game most often criticised for lacking these things. But the powers that be have not made that case (at least that I’ve seen). The NRL did go through the correct channels internally, but failed to effectively consult their number one stakeholder – the fans – in any substantial or comprehensive way. The change was surprise from most people. More work to lay the groundwork could have helped the decision’s acceptance.
Putting aside the perceived administrative frailties of the decision, let’s get into what the actual impact will be on the field.
Teams will have to adjust the aggression of their defence. The likelihood of a 20/40 seems small immediately following a kick but the threat will always be there. Later in sets if teams are stuck in their own area the risk/reward nexus will seem to incentivise a kick. There’s almost no doubt teams will therefore set up their defenders as they would when a 40/20 was a threat, pushing the weak side winger back to the split the field with the fullback.
The flow on effect from this is obvious. One less defender in the line means more opportunity for the attack. It may open up the possibility of going around a side; or in an attempt to maintain structural integrity, sides may be less able to monster the ball-carrier. Either way it could mean more adventurous play from a team’s on goal-line.
While it may open up the game, it seems unlikely there will actually be many successful 20/40 kicks. So often successful 40/20s come from a good carry and a quick kick. The fact that a good carry will probably take the ball past the twenty in most cases will probably mean a smaller volume of these kicks compared to 40/20s. More often they’ll be desperation shots; attempts to get out of your own zone when you’re on the wrong end of possession and position splits. While it may make life easier for teams that have traditionally struggled to get out of their own area, it may not have a substantial impact because of it will more often come from a disadvantageous position.
Sidebar: If you wanted to really speculate, you could wonder what this change might mean for the kicking skills of the back three, and whether over time it might lead to early set kicking from wingers and fullbacks. I’m all for more ball skills, but I’m wary of anything that creates the ‘back-and-forth’ kicking of Union.
I suspect the league equates more openness with more attractive football. I’m not so sure this is the case. As much as anything, league attracts because of the clash of flesh on flesh. The sheer physicality of the game came oftentimes here as exhilarating as a player in space.
This may impact the Raiders in a few ways. They’d made great use in 2019 of trapping teams in their own corners. They’ll continue to try to do that in 2020, but it may be harder (or at least have a degree of risk to it). The Raiders were also rarely trapped themselves, owing to a brilliant back three that could cart themselves out of any hole and so they may have few opportunities to try the kick (though I’m sure Josh Hodgson is already working out how he might use it). The comparative advantage the Raiders had gained by having a top-tier back three is reduced by this change – teams that don’t have a strong backside now have a way out that doesn’t involve actually getting better at what had been a standard requirement until 2020. For the Raiders it doesn’t render the carrying ability of their back three moot, it just makes the difference it creates slightly less useful. 2020 is maybe a smidge harder now, but nothing to fret over.
Use of these rules tends to evolve over time (any NBA fan familiar with the change in 3-point shot volume will tell you that). We won’t know until next year just how big that difference is. In the end it could be minuscule as teams only use it as a desperation option; equally, it could become ‘normal’ for teams to kick early. All we can do is watch and wait see what the impact is in 2020 and beyond. The change may be minor, but I think it will be noteworthy.