The rule change set to transform the NRL kicking game forever
By Adrian ProszenkoAugust 27, 2021 — 5.00am
Kicks which find touch during play will result in the opposition receiving a seven-tackle set under a proposed new rule change that could be trialled as soon as next week.
The NRL’s innovation committee will convene early next week to discuss the impact of recent rule changes and consider whether any other tweaks could further improve the spectacle.
The Herald can reveal the main agenda item will be whether all kicks in general play that find touch - with the exception of the 40-20 and the seldom-used 20-40 - will result in a seven-tackle set to the opposition. The initiative, which could be road-tested for the first time in the round 25 clash between Canterbury and Wests Tigers, has the potential to totally revolutionise the kicking game.
The idea is the brainchild of innovation committee chairman Wayne Pearce, who believes it could result in more ball-in-play time by discouraging the traditional touch-finder kicks that are often used to slow down the game.
“At the moment, when a ball gets kicked into touch, there’s a turnover and the team can have it in the middle of the field or wherever they want to have it,” Pearce told the Herald.
“My view is that there’s a difference between a player running into touch - whether it be trying to score a try or whatever - and a player deliberately kicking into touch to slow the play down. Sometimes players can’t help going into touch or the ball getting passed into touch, but if the ball is deliberately kicked into touch, then there should be some sort of disincentive. This is only my view - and I haven’t run it past the innovation committee yet - is that we would restart with a seven-tackle set. That then becomes consistent if you kick the ball dead-in-goal. So rather than dead-in-goal, the whole perimeter of the field - if the ball gets kicked out of bounds - then there’s a seven-tackle restart. It disincentivises some of the teams from kicking into touch and trying to get a slow restart.”
The governing body often uses matches in the final round of the regular season, if they have no consequence on the finals race, to pressure-test rule change. That was the case last year when referees were asked to adjudicate on tries without going to the bunker, giving the video reviewers until the conversion is about to be taken to overturn the decision. The trial was deemed successful and has since been implemented on a full-time basis this year.
Previously, the captain’s challenge was also trialled in the last round of the season in matches that had no bearing on the top eight.
If the innovation committee gives the trial the green light, it would draw additional interest to a Tigers-Bulldogs encounter that will have little bearing on where the teams finish on the competition ladder.
“Effectively, it’s like the 20-metre tap restart [for kicks that go beyond the in-goal] - teams hate that because the extra tackle means a significant difference to where the play will end up on the last tackle,” Pearce explained.
“It’s not something that pops its head up in many games anyway, there might be games where they don’t kick the ball into touch. Some teams use it as a ploy because they think ‘we can slow it down and get our defence set.’”
The current seven-tackle set is colloquially known as the “Billy Slater rule”, introduced to stop teams kicking the ball dead intentionally to avoid having to defend the champion fullback’s kick returns from broken play. The latest rule variation may result in even more fatigue given kickers won’t be able to wind down the clock by kicking away from the back three and into touch.
The NRL have attempted to innovate with a series of rule changes in recent seasons, most notably by reverting to one referee and introducing the six-again call for most infringements. Pearce felt those innovations had the desired effect of making the game faster and more attractive, and that any further changes would only be minor.
“The main point is we made a lot of significant changes and we’re moving into a consolidation phase,” said the former Balmain forward, who is a member of the Australian Rugby League Commission.
“There is no doubt the game flows a lot better than it had when the wrestle was in, that’s for sure.
“I can’t see the sense in change for change’s sake. That’s why we might run with the one trial and see how that goes because the feedback has been pretty good over the changes we’ve brought in over the last couple of years.”
One rule the innovation committee considered changing in recent seasons was allowing the try-scoring team to kick off at the restart. However, that tweak isn’t currently on the agenda.
“One of the things we don’t want to do is change the essence of what the game is about and that would significantly change the spirit of the game,” Pearce said.
“For example, we haven’t got rid of the scrums; what we’ve done is we’ve reduced the number of scrums, which increases the flow of the game. We’re conscious of the tradition and the history of the game. We don’t want to tamper with that.”