The Raiders and the Rule Changes

Hello. We wrote a bit more about what we think about this latest rule change here. You don’t have to read it, but it’s basically a good introduction to this one.

BY DAN

Last year the Canberra Raiders got rolled by the continuing adjustment of the rules made by Peter V’Landys and his whims (among other things). Underprepared and underconditioned, they fell apart in second halves, and struggled to find the form they’d displayed in previous years. Another rule change has been brought forth. Are the Raiders ready this time?

Now set restarts won’t be offered in the defensive 40. As we noted in this piece, this may reduce some of the worst effects of the set restart rule, but it will also add complexity. It’s a flawed approach that stops short of an actual solution to a problem of the league’s own creation. And yet teams will have to adapt again, while also managing an increasingly complex response to the coronavirus. Easy hey?

The impact on any team, let alone the Raiders, is a difficult matter to address. Canberra weren’t a team that exploited the loophole of using the set restart rule in defence to force teams on exit sets into slow rucks (and therefore not many metres). A lot of tallying and interpretation has been done of who conceded the most ‘six agains’ in their opponents 40, and almost all have the Panthers, the Eels and Bunnies at the forefront of this ridiculousness. The Roosters conceded the most offside penalties in the competition, and anyone watching them could see how they used it as a weapon to control sets.

The Raiders were at the other end, one of the teams that didn’t concede many set restarts in their opposition’s yardage sets. You’ll find a heap of measures around, but here’s one from the always tremendous Rugby League Eye Test that splits location by halves. It shows the Milk smack bang in the middle. It’s not hard to see something in common among the worst offenders, with 6 of the top 8 more likely to concede in the opposition half than in their own. I’ve seen other version that have Canberra even more towards the ‘not exploiting the rule’ end. Safe to say the Green Machine were a side either not able to, or not thinking of, exploiting this rule.

Partly this was because the Milk were such a rabble in 2021, a side that weren’t able to get their defence sufficiently organised to take advantage (and conversely, good teams were more likely to concede in the opposition half because they were busy beating them to a pulp). But also it was because it took them a long time into the season to adapt their approach to what was happening to the game. Sticky has always done his best work in the off-season after all.

But expecting the game to progress in the same direction is a flawed assumption. The rule should pare that back a bit (hopefully). Teams will also be better prepared physically for footy this year, even with ‘rona at their backs and in their pores. No team will be surprised by the pace of the game like the Milk were last year. Canberra have done the leg work on conditioning under new guru Jeremy Hickmans. There has been significant change, a fact confirmed by the players in November last year. But that isn’t the only factor that allows adaptation.

It’s obvious that flexibility within the roster is a critical component of adjusting to whatever these rules may bring, particularly in the middle. Canberra have a range of options through their forward pack that should allow them to adjust. As we discussed here, the lock position does a lot of work in determining their pack size and is a key indicator of how the Milk will go forth. Whether they use Josh Hodgson there as they did last season, a prop like Ryan Sutton or Corey Horsburgh, or a hybrid of the two in Adam Elliott or Elliott Whitehead, they have the flexibility to adapt their style to the situation. They have youth like Trey Mooney and Harry Rushton that can (and should) be given an opportunity to show they may well be the best of all worlds.

Having the roster is fine, but adjusting to the game will be harder. Coach Stuart’s adjustments last season were confusing at best. He played a prop at 13 throughout the season, and a bench full of middles early last year, as well as multiple hookers on the bench. It wasn’t until round 7 that the bench had anyone that could legitimately cover edge and middle (it was Hudson Young returning from injury). Brad Schneider was barely used off the bench in round 11, likewise Matt Timoko in round 19, but in the vast majority of games Stuart was wedded to what had worked in the before times in terms of team structure. It took the public basically imploring him through the first half of the season to regularly play Tom Starling and Josh Hodgson at the same time. But most of all the fact the Raiders never worked out what the Panthers and the Roosters did is the best evidence you need that Stuart needs to be better at adjusting.

So it’s one thing to have options, but the harder job is recognising what change is needed and adapting. It may be that the approach of previous years works because of better preparation and a slightly less dramatic impact of the rules. It may be that all this preparation to go ‘small’ is for nought, and they need power because everyone is fit enough to handle the pace. Stuart will have to be quicker than he was last year at identifying what kind of bodies he needs on the field.

Having said that, I think there’s merit in building more mobility into what the Raiders do. Getting more mobile than the opposition has worked for them before, most notably over the 2018-2019 period when Josh Papalii transitioned from second-row to lock to proper prop, and John Bateman’s small frame but fiery presence took to the backrow. The agility of the attack and the scramble in defence gave the Milk a point of difference. Whether that would exist with the uncertainty of how this season will play out is beyond me, but leaning towards it rather than staying big feels like a good pathway to follow.

The Raiders aren’t just having to guess what their opponents are up to, but also the short-attention-spans running the game. Given in the last week they’ve announced rule changes, microchips in the balls and a(nother) “review” of the judiciary, everything’s up for grabs. When you have game administration making decisions on a whim you need to stay flexible. Let’s hope the Milk can adjust as they go.

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