NRL Rules Lounge

Grab a drink and pull up to the booth.

Rules changes are back in the news, and a previous blog deals with several (uncontroversial) ideas in more depth. Remember, the aim is simply to make changes that improve the speed of play and the game as a product. The guiding principle should always be the simplest and best solution to the right question, whatever its genesis.

Right, forging ahead … The Daniel Anderson-inspired coaches summit was disappointing. Apart from providing headlines related to obstruction, it seemed merely an exercise to sit in a convention room at muffin o’clock and ask the belt buckle some serious questions. There is a relatively simple way to address obstruction as discussed prior, though the results of Muffingate are still Top Secret (and probably not as interesting as the original!). I’m waiting with baited breath.

All Stars To Trial New Rules

It is therefore a positive development to learn that the NRL All Stars match will trial a long-favoured remedy in the Dr’s surgery– restarting a kick that goes dead-in-goal from where it was kicked, or the 20m line, whichever is greatest. It is a negative tactic, and should not be rewarded. Further, no trial is required. It’s simple, so just do it!

Actually, even in-goal grubber kicks are questionable. If diffused by defenders (similar to catching a bomb), it’s off to the 20m line for a change over! The attacking team rolled the dice and kicked, were unsuccessful, and should not be rewarded with facing a drop out. Use it or lose it (where have I heard that before?).

Anyone watching the 1985 Grand Final (as just one example) can attest to the mind-numbing boredom of repeated drop-outs, especially in important games. 40 minutes of poking your eye with a fork suddenly becomes an idea seriously entertained rather than watch the game played in this fashion. As Wayne Bennett says, “We are in the entertainment business”. (as did Todd Greenberg). Granted, he was talking about another rule, but the spirit of the comment fits.

Ruck Speed

The rule Benny was referring to directly was restarting the tackle count for slowing down the ruck instead of penalising. The only sour note of this rule is that I didn’t think of it. However, it is just another way of speeding up the play-the-ball which has been addressed in an earlier blog, and which should have been sorted out years ago. I like a bit of BJJ as much as the next guy, but not 4-on-1 in a tackle –ie. It never needed come to this … the refereeing heirarchy always had control, but chose not to exercise it.

Ruck Speed Ramifications

This rule will level the playing field and have profound consequences for the relative success of teams. It is a simple fact that some teams exploit the rules, or non-application of them, far more effectively than others. Some notable defenders seem to have more control of the ball than the ball carrier at times! Remove the cynicism, remove the doubt, embrace the pace of the game. Then again, there is also the possibility that the free rides continue.

Shoulder Charge Approach Still Misses The Point

As a prelude to a future blog on concussions, the effective “un-banning” of the shoulder charge as reported by Steve Mascord (here) will likely create more uncertainty and controversy. In some ways this is fine because NRL fans, particularly tragics, get to navel gaze on an issue of little import yet again. It’s loads of fun, but not terribly productive.

On the other hand, it rankles that the whole point should be head contact, and that the NRL is missing it yet again. It has solved nothing. According to the new version of the rule, arms tucked in is banned, but arms out is ok. I can remember both resulting in head contact through 2012.

And THAT is the issue. Tinkering with a shoulder charge rule is not. Boxing has it right when a concussion (or knockout) occurs – Game over!

PS. I like that Paul Gallen supported fewer interchanges (I would go fewer) in order to reintroduce natural attrition into the game, while bringing the influence of smaller, snappier players back into it. Large collisions are reduced, as are injuries. As a player who rates an 8 out of 10 on the Morley scale of toughness (about as high as you can get, I might add), hid view carries some weight. What’s more, it’s more obvious than Gorbachev’s birthmark.

The more I’m hearing lately, the more I think the Dr is on the right track!

T20 tennis

While digesting the first round results of the Australian Open tennis, I was amazed (should I have been?) by the lopsided results. There were a couple of games in the Ladies draw, for instance, where the loser didn’t even manage to scramble a game. It was reminiscent, to my mind, of T20 cricket, a game that has evolved to cater for the technology-induced deterioration in our concentration spans. It seems that tennis is doing this naturally, with many sets struggling to last 20 minutes. Perhaps the gals on the losing side had some tweeting or emailing to do, I can’t be sure.

OMG, this set has been going, like, 15 minutes already! - Source: Fox Sports

OMG, this set has been going, like, 15 minutes already! – Source: Fox Sports

This led me to analysing both sides of the draw, Mens and Ladies, to tease out some key stats. Not the % of First Serves, Error count etc, but a comparison of the length of matches, games played etc. I’ve never seen a comparison like this, so a painstaking data trawl was in order. Now, this wasn’t meant to be a comparison or opinion on Mens tennis vs Ladies tennis. I don’t wish to be excoriated, excommunicated, or in any way ex’d by the fairer sex, and I actually like Ladies tennis (now), but note that the depth makes early rounds less than exciting, and prize money vs entertainment is still an issue.

So here are some selected facts from Round 1:

– the average Ladies match lasted 1hr40 with 22 completed games on average

– the Men’s draw averaged 2hr28 with 36 games per average match

– the Men’s matches therefore were nearly 50% longer on average, with more than 60% more games played (yes, I realise the men play best of 5 sets)

– speaking of which, only 37.5% of the Ladies matches went further than the minimum 2 sets, while 50% of the Men’s matches required more than 3 sets (20% being 5-setters)

– comparing Mens and Ladies 3-set matches, I find average lengths of 60min and 56min respectively. This is much closer and suggestive of comparison, but is arguably unrepresentative because a Ladies 3-set match “going the distance” is likely to be far more competitive, per set, than Roger Federer slamming any Round 1 opponent unlucky enough to draw him.

I’m going to bet Round 2 is similar, but we’ll see (if I can be bothered).

Update:

This is a result I wasn’t quite expecting, but Round 2 had an even wider court-time discrepancy between Men’s and Ladies’ draws, due mostly to some marathon Men’s matches.

The average match was 60% longer in the Men’s draw, with 80% more games played.

In the Ladies, 20% of matches have gone longer then the minimum (6 of 30 so far have reached a third set), while 45% of Men’s have reached at least a 4th set (13 of 29 so far)

However, Ladies’ 3-setters have averaged a very competitive 2hr25 in Round 2, outlasting the Men’s 1hr50.

Moral of Round 2? If you get beaten in the Men’s draw in straight sets, you get really beaten up!  But don’t the Ladies in their 2-setters? You bet.

The real moral is that you can’t reeeeallly compare 3-set matches between the sexes, because a 3-set Ladies match is far more competitive – it goes the distance.

Instead, look at it this way – for both Men’s AND Ladies straight-set matches, there is an average 8.8 games played per set. So when you’re arguing (for or against) equal prize money, just keep in mind that matches are equally competitive. It’s just that the Men last longer.

Ladies’ tennis is therefore the T20 version of Men’s tennis 🙂

Rotation: CA and Mickey Arthur Say Sit on This and Rotate!

Australian cricket coach Mickey Arthur has basically told the media “sit on this and rotate”. He may well be frustrated by the persistent criticism of CA’s rotation policy, but imagine how ticket holders feel, many of whom bought tickets well in advance. And could there be other detrimental effects that outweigh the good intentions?

talk-to-the-handjpg-71824e3129d16207_largeThere is a lot that doesn’t quite add up with the policy. If, for example, they know “who the best team is” and aim to have it performing in the most important games, it’s hard to square this off with resting Peter Siddle from the deciding 3rd Test vs South Africa, unless he was busting a move on a zimmer frame, which I doubt. The Test was decided all right … in the tourists favour.

As a spectator, it tells me that the management of the team have determined that series outside World Cups or The Ashes are second rate, and good for tinkering purposes only. It does shorten my wait for a beer at the ground, however 🙂 It’s also a smidge insulting to a visiting team such as Sri Lanka this summer. So just be clear about that, and lower ticket prices accordingly, and don’t complain about lukewarm crowds. The cricketing public want to see the best players, and will increasingly tune in to Channel 9 (who also question the policy, though it’s hard to be sympathetic on that score), or just tune out.

The policy has degenerated into a mish-mash of Australia and Australia A, all in the one team. Older cricket enthusiasts will remember how using Australia A as a third in a triangular series was less than uplifting, and so it is today. If it is so clear and transparent, why do we continue to have the uncertainty related to players such as Usman Khawaja, and why was there no mention prior to his exclusion last night that it was always going to be that way (as Mickey opined in the press)?

When are they going to appreciate that a team is more than the sum of its parts, and a team that coalesces around a consistent core generally performs better than various combinations of itinerants? Could this actually be the source of the poor running between wickets? There’s a thought … My trusty stethoscope betrays anxious heart palpitations and arythmia every time a short single is called by the stranger at the other end …

And how battle-hardened is the Test team going to be for a long 5-game Ashes tour? Or will they continue to rotate? Or is this when they abandon the policy? This is precisely the type of series that needs a minimum of change to the team list. At this point it seems that England’s biggest enemy is complacency, which hurts to say.

As for CA, this is the group of geniuses who kept a player of such awesome talent as Brad Hodge out of the national team during his prime, amongst other cricketing crimes, so no real surprise. There is no doubt in my mind he would have had a record matching our recently retired hero Mike Hussey.

The Roosters’ roster review

With Sonny Bill Bouris a confirmed starter for the Roosters this year, and Michael “AV” Jennings a short priced favourite to do the same, not only are the planets aligned positively for house prices in the Eastern Suburbs given that pedigree, but Roosters fans must be smirking into their lattes and pinots.

While I can’t possibly believe the rumour that one of Sonny Bill’s new contract stipulations is that the team play in open neck buttoned-down shirts and sports jackets, his presence has been enough for me to pick the Roosters as the biggest improver over 2012, and a team we will be seeing in the 2013 NRL finals. He talks the talk and loves the moolah, but he also walks the walk. His ability, professionalism and quality of performances are finely matched in whatever sport he seems to choose, making him the anti-Tomic in some respects.

But now we have the prospect of blistering speed of “AV” on the left side of the park and Shaun Kenny Dowall on the right side, whose on-field right-foot step matches his off-field left-foot step into Bondi Ink. With Pearce and Maloney in the middle directing play (well, Maloney, anyhow), and Sonny Bill popping balls to Minichiello flying up the inside, this team has the right attributes to make the most of a young roster and a new coaching structure.

Having said all that, AV will probably go and sign with the Titans, though I wouldn’t bet on it. But as an observer, and if he were asked, Dr NRL would suggest possible signs of dementia should he not choose the Bondi option. A young and talented team brimming with playmakers should be quite attractive to him, not to mention the proximity to home. Having rid themselves of serial ball-dropper BJ Leilua and with the cap increasing into the near future, the Roosters could easily afford to accommodate the Panthers’ reduced contribution after 2014.

A top 8 prediction for the Roosters would then become a minimum expectation for the club, more like 4th, 5th or 6th. Don’t laugh! And in the finals, who knows what can happen …

Is that a light at the end of the tunnel … Or a train?

It is heartening to see Daniel Anderson offering NRL coaches a seat at the table to discuss rules changes for the 2013 season. At the same time, it is easy to be disheartened when thinking back to the false starts that have accompanied such lofty ambitions.

Some of the possible rules changes were covered in a previous blog, and it is hoped some or all of these will have some independent traction at next week’s meeting. This isn’t a sterile debate, and is one of some import. The game can no longer afford to rely on the game’s positive features without regard to the negative. After all, any sport has elements in its favour, whether they be on-field or off-field in nature. And failing to rise to the challenge of simultaneously bettering the code, and responding to developments in other codes, effectively means standing still. This is untenable when you consider not only the sturm and drag about AFL franchise GWS in the battle for western Sydney (or, more correctly, it’s wallet), but the more pressing questions being asked by the A-League (and the Wanderers pose a much more formidable challenge than GWS).

One of the agenda items not covered in the blog mentioned above was obstruction. This rule, or the interpretation of it, has been a free-for-all for some time, culminating in a wave of impenetrable logic leading to a litany of inexplicable decisions offered during 2012. It is also an example of initial high hopes falling flat.

Notwithstanding the spectacular lack of success so far, this is a rule that cannot be rules-based. There has to be some room for interpretation based on the flow of play and angles generated by the attacking team and, of course, whether anyone was actually impeded! Of course, not having behemoths thundering into the defensive line like wildebeest is one way of eliminating doubt. The fact remains, however, that rugby league is a game of angles where an attacking player can literally brush past a defender who, even if they are the best defender in the game, cannot respond effectively if he is even slightly off the plane of a ball carrier moving at speed – ie. is moving in another direction and/or is off balance. There are some brilliant angle runners in the game (like Manly’s Anthony Watmough, amongst others) who slice through gaps a dentist couldn’t find. And why? Because they exploit the angle, whether by explicit design or intuition. Sweeping backline set plays are actually based on this very premise.

The interpretation of the rule thus far suggests referees do not understand this. It would help if they actually had some playing experience that would make this readily apparent, or just a simple appreciation of human movement. The point is this: Decoy X running ahead of the ball does not necessarily impede Defender Y, despite their proximity to each other. You cannot say my cat has 4 legs, my dog has 4 legs, therefore my dog is a cat! I’m going to have to get better at this technology and offer up some explanatory video contrasts, but robotic, deterministic rules-based obstruction laws do not work, cannot work, and therefore have to be crafted to appreciate this, and applied thoughtfully in practice (no mean feat, despite some former players being sought to adjudicate such matters).

It won’t stop the bleating, but ultimately there will be more correct decisions made.

Losing Mr Cricket is worse than you think

I’m worried. Not only does the Dr. have a PHD in NRL, but also majors in Cricket, Golf and Tennis. So I look at the Aussie cricket team, specifically (but not confined to) Mike Hussey’s retirement, and I’m worried. The value of such a player (following the exit of Ricky Ponting) cannot merely be measured in terms of runs, catches and the occasional wicket. Nor is it specifically being the leader of the team song! It’s all of those things and more. As many business (or other) analysts know, the concept of synergy (the result being greater than the sum of its parts) is awfully good and felt palpably, but difficult to measure. In this case, it means losing a leader, a mentor with exceptional experience and achievements, a match winner, a match saver, a reliable glue that binds a team and pulls it in a common direction. So, instead of the synergistic benefit accruing to the current team, there will be a void that Captain Clarke will battle valiantly (but find difficult) to immediately replace. Oh, and he’s been scoring a mountain of runs as well …

The current top order is inexperienced, and is underperforming. Funnily enough (and I say that given my historical view), Phil Hughes may well be the player that stands up to be counted, and to buttress the team’s batting total behind Captain Clarke (who I anticipate will have a better 2013 than 2012). He has a tremendous opportunity. He’ll have to sort out his running though! As will Cowan. They simply haven’t scored enough runs to make up for Run Outs. Besides, what a waste! Coach Mickey Arthur is almost pleading for “someone to put their hand up”, but is spinning it well. There is definitely some concern before the tour to India.

The other issue continues to be Shane Watson, who is now a “registered” batsman. I have high regard for his batting, and am therefore perplexed by his modest returns over the last year, and am completely confused both as to why he hasn’t given up bowling earlier given his attachment to the physiotherapist’s table, and why the Aussie team feels it absolutely must have an all-rounder. One will emerge, but there is little point forcing it upon someone (like Mitchell Johnson, who has only just returned to the international scene as a bowler).

The Aussie team needs a revitalised Shane Watson in the top 6 (even back as opener where he had some success), and fielding in a wheelchair in a bubble at 3rd slip. The noises from the selectors the entire summer have betrayed a lack of confidence in Watson as a batsman, first and foremost. He therefore has 2 battles – earning the belief of the selectors, and scoring the runs to do so. Even if he does, the top 6 will go to the Ashes with a huge task in front of them, and a massive point to prove.

Some common sense ideas to drive the game forward

Going back to the idea from the initial post that rugby league succeeds despite itself, let’s get some meat on them bones to begin the new year. What does that even mean?

It is not a comment directed at the standard of play, to be sure. The quality of the on-field product is its clear strong point. I’ll watch and appreciate the competitiveness and skill of a 10th v 14th on Super Saturday over a Bledisloe any day (it wasn’t always that way, but that that is rugby’s problem to solve, and boy is it a big one! And I’m sure I’ll write about that at some point too …). League is a game played by warriors, whose athleticism seems to grow exponentially on a yearly basis, and whose skill and toughness continues to amaze (even if some of the players’ behaviour does not). So it should be clear that the subject matter of blogs here comes from a good place. It is about how to most effectively advance what is simply an awesome product, but this doesn’t mean to imply there isn’t significant room for improvement …

Simply, if the game really wants to be considered (or be worthy of the phrase) the greatest game of all, it has to be able to not only move with the times (demographics, sponsorships and media, player access, rival competition for the sporting dollar including merchandising, and so on), it should strive to be a leader. Rugby league administrators and fans alike spend far too much time taking offence at other sports encroaching upon sacred rugby league territory in a classic them vs us mentality, and not enough on the positives of the game or pathways to improvement. The game tends to become overly insular which is a terribly negative framework from which to analyse, administer and improve the end-product. Perhaps this tribal approach is the real glue that binds, but still, there is an under-appreciation of how positive ideas from rival sports can be expressed in rugby league, and therefore a reactive approach to administrative policy.

Significant, even quite simple, changes that might well globalise the game and send it into the stratosphere are eschewed either because advancement may require following the lead of another sport (Oh the horror of falling on the McIntyre sword in favour of the AFL’s much more sensible model … how long did that take?!), or that the problem is misdiagnosed (such as banning the shoulder charge when the actual problem is attacking the head of an opponent)?

I say, stuff ‘em. Clearly that isn’t my best bedside manner, but our collective objective is to grow the sport to heights hitherto unimagined. Therefore, what rugby league should be doing is be shrewd, to take the best of the best from all codes from tiddlywinks to AFL if that is what it takes. Head in the sand won’t be a prescription on this site!

One of those rules that requires urgent change, and which will be an import from rugby, concerns attacking kicks that go dead in goal. Clearly, some kicks don’t deserve the epithet “attacking”, and teams are increasingly using the 20m restart as a defensive tactic to play field position, as well as to slow the game. This is not against the rules as they stand, but is a cynical approach to play. It is against the spirit of the game (I assume that still matters), and should therefore see a restart from the point where the kick was taken, or the 20m line, whichever is greatest. This is mindnumbingly simple. Some commentators like the idea of restarting at the 30m line. But why? It’s the same problem, just 10m upfield, and completely devoid of deterrent value. Time to rectify this game buster  – no more kicks from half way restarting at the 20m line. They should restart from half way (or wherever the kick was taken).

While we’re at it, take time off for conversion kicks at goal. The moment a try is awarded, time stops until the resumption in play – ie. The next kick off. Players get a rest, but more importantly, we end the opportunity for a team to waste time, wandering back to the half way line like they’ve just limped out of the Simpson desert, and oh, just happen to have a small lead into the dying minutes of the game … It’s just unnecessary. Too much of the clock is chewed up this way already. There are several tries scored per game. This isn’t rugby! I’m also partial to stopping the clock when the ball has crossed the sideline in any capacity.

What about the try that results in said conversion? Surely there must be a ‘burden of proof” on scoring a try. Well, shouldn’t there? No more duds like Manly scoring controversially (and more than once) against the Cowboys in an elimination final. No more fingers somewhere near the ball in a stop-frame replay being rewarded with a try. There just has to be control – has to be. Scoring tries is not easy, but that doesn’t mean you need a reward just for getting close. And the defensive team should be rewarded for defending to the point where the try does not pass the reasonable doubt test. Grounding with the torso is a case in point. That’s not control, it’s circumstantial. You cannot claim possession in general play this way, and so it should be in a try-scoring situation. Why on earth is the super slow-mo not used for all tries referred to the video ref? There’s no guarantee they’ll get it right as 2012 so aptly demonstrated, but stop-frame? Seriously?

But there’s more …

The draw, the draw, the draw … The Dr. shares Craig Bellamy’s frustration. The draw has been sub-optimal for many years (just like the semi final system). It’s hysterical that the announcement of a locked-in draw for most of the home-and-away season was greeted as something major. But why should the NRL pay an offshore company good money to produce that draw, then proceed to have teams play each other twice within the first handful of rounds each season? Seriously, the Dr. could riff it out with his mates at the local pub over a few lagers and some air guitar. C’monn!

What about the travelling clown show that is refereeing? Clearly the refs do not feel empowered because the rules and media tell them to question every decision. I cannot speak authoritatively about developments behind the scenes and the ability of Harrrigan et al to make changes last year, so the jury is out on the change in leadership personnel (though it really did give every appearance of being ineffective, insipid and clueless ).

There will surely be countless opportunities to revisit this topic during 2013, so I won’t belabour the point, suffice it to add that there is no good reason for the game to be “slower” than a decade ago. It’s easy to relegate 4-man tackles and wrestling holds to the dustbins of history – penalise, penalise, penalise. It won’t last long! Why is there no official stomach to address this? Or to proactively empower referees to penalise tackles involving a new & improved version of a chicken wing/crusher/grapple/whatever? Maybe it’s time for yellow cards …

Oh, and touchies … What do they do? So many points to note, but the biggie is this – ever picked up the paper to see a picture of a sideline try from a game on the weekend? Where is the touchie? 10 yards behind the play, that’s where, with zero view of anything. When an attacking team is close to the line, there is absolutely no excuse for a touchie to be behind the play. Chasing Ben Barba for 100m is a different story, but touchies being behind the play is a systemic disease. They need to be accountable, and at least try to get it right. It they’re not going to add some sort of value, we may as well get the lingerie football players to run the lines.

ARLC and CEO issues will have to wait until another day, so just to round up a couple of other major issues …

Outlawing the shoulder charge is a bad decision. The sentiment is right given it is a direct response to punishing head contacts during the 2012 season. But there’s the issue right there – head contact is the problem, not shoulder charges (which are a miniscule part of the game). This is a classic misdiagnosis of the problem leading to an ineffective policy response, and will prove difficult to administer to boot! Significant controversy awaits. What constitutes a shoulder charge? That is, what part of the circumference of the body must the tackler’s arms envelope before the tackle becomes legitimate, and is therefore not a shoulder charge? Or is it sufficient to have one hand on the ball carriers’ body, or two? Can’t wait to see this! It will be a dog’s breakfast. If only the NRL would get tough on head contacts, the shoulder charge becomes a non issue … because it is a non issue. Head contact is the issue … a serious issue.

It seems pretty clear why the head has featured increasingly in shoulder charges – the only place that players cannot increase body mass is the head, and body mass has increased as the pace of play has slowed, and as interchanges have made their way into the game. A shoulder charge in the old days was almost always aimed at the torso, but with a larger opponent, the effect on the ball carrier is reduced, and the risk to the tackler is increased. Path of least resistance leads to the head. It’s pretty simple. Get tough on head contact, and there’s no problem.

But back to the interchange mentioned above (or as I like to say, a blue ribbon example of the law of unintended consequences). In this case, the idea that more interchange = less injury has turned out to be quite the opposite. As players become increasingly used as defensive or attacking weapons in shorter bursts, their size has predictably increased. Endurance and natural attrition play a much reduced role in the modern game, to its detriment. Collisions amongst fresher, larger players are phenomenal, so not only are injuries more prevalent, but players’ shelf lives are arguably shortened too.

This post is way too long already, and there will be ample opportunity to examine all these issues in more detail as the season approaches and begins. Hopefully there is some food for thought here.