The National Rugby League made some changes to the game this week. These changes will have a profound impact on teams like the Raiders, how they play their footy, their chances for 2020 and how they build their team going forward.
Sidebar: If you’re keen to read some more detailed thoughts on the administration’s approach to putting these changes in place I wrote something on that too. Read it here.
These changes – the return to a single referee and the discretion to award a “set restart” instead if a full penalty – are theoretically designed to speed up the game. If we take it at face value we can see the benefit to the Milk. Their relatively smaller forward pack, the ability of people like Cotric, Simonsson and Nicoll-Klokstad to do yardage work, and the relative dynamism of players like Elliott Whitehead, John Bateman and Joe Tapine, would allow them to adjust to these rules really well. More pace and space would mean Jack Wighton and George Williams more space to move the outside thirds of defence around, and with their running games, they would run riot. Josh Hodgson would have more time to work, more space to send players like Josh Papalii, Bateman and Sia Soliola back against the grain. In short, if the game sped up, the Green Machine would be ready to rumble.
Defensively, the improvement to the Raiders’ edge defence in recent years would be critical, and players like Hudson Young and Tapine would be even more important in providing depth at those positions. Jack Wighton would be fine, but George Williams would need more support from Bateman (if healthy) as teams utilise the space and time they find to isolate him in defence. But the Raiders would be well set up to handle that.
Unfortunately, these changes are more likely to result in a slow ruck. This has been confirmed by coaches, including Ricky Stuart. This has been confirmed by players, including David Klemmer.
This has also been confirmed by anyone with eyes that’s watched international football. Tonga’s recent victories over Australia and Great Britain were testament to this fact. Just look at this comparison of play the ball speed between an Anzac test and the Raiders semi against the Storm last year from the NRL Boom Rookies. One referee led to ruck speeds more than a second slower than what the Storm allowed.
This slower ruck means several things. Bigger packs will benefit. When you can’t earn a quick ruck in a tackle, you need a bruiser to bend the line. Josh Papalii is even more important to the Raiders now, and the changes over recent years to go smaller may be felt. It’s not like the Raiders are without size – Tapine, Emre Guler, Ryan Sutton and Soliola can all bend the line without needing the space to do so, but the job does become harder.
This may lead to more forward rotations. All of a sudden the decision to potentially carry a back on the bench becomes less enticing. If the ruck is slow, and big men are needed to create momentum and bend the line, then they’ll need to fully utilise the middle rotations. Luckily the Raiders can adapt – Siliva Havili’s ability to play every position in the pack may critical.
It hampers Canberra’s dynamic backline’s ability to earn yardage coming off their own line. The Raiders led the competition in dummy-half runs in 2019, mainly led by players like Cotric, Rapana, Simonsson and Nicoll-Klokstad burning up the middle after kicks. It meant the Raiders almost always were in a field position battle, even if they weren’t at equal possession (which, often they weren’t).
It also means the Raiders “comparative advantage of what Josh Hodgson can do with a football becomes slightly less. Hodgson is incredible at creating space from nothing, looking defenders off and engaging markers to make some wiggle-room for his big men. But there’s no doubt that this is harder when you’re starting each tackle having had defenders fiddle the ruck into a standstill, it makes life harder to manipulate it. Maybe Hodgson can still work his magic, but the degree of diffciulty just became harder.
The major benefit in these changes will be to the Raiders’ defence. As Nick Campton of the Daily Telegraph pointed out on a recent episode of the NRL Boom Rookies podcast (download and subscribe you cowards), the diry secret of Canberra’s defensive improvement in 2019 was in its ability to slow and control the ruck. The Raiders conceded the most penalties because they were putting so much effort into slowing the ruck. Their relative lack of size also contributed to this. Now they will have an open licence to do what they need, or at least, a set of eyes less watching what they do there.
It will also be a test of Coach Stuart’s ability to adjust on the fly, as the changes may start with a quickening of the ruck as the referees attempt to stamp their authority on the game before the howling from the reactionary press leads to demands on the referees to ‘put the whistle away’, at which point the ruck will turn to mud.
It seems the Raiders are relatively well placed to adjust to these changes, regardless of their impact. There’s little time to prepare, so having a balanced roster, something that the Milk very much have, is a big part of this. Over the next few weeks we’ll get a better idea of which way the game is going to go. Let’s hope the Green Machine keeps rolling.
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