Seven rounds into the season and we’ve got a pretty good idea of what the rule changes for 2021 have brought to the competition.
The ball is in play more than it perhaps ever has been, the better teams have widened the gap over the battlers, and we’ve seen more injuries and head high tackles than we have for a long time.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Either way, it would have been naïve in the extreme to think that you could give the game a hefty tweak for the second year in a row and have nothing other than faster play the balls and more points be the net result.
I’m not sure how much Albert Einstein knew about rugby league, but he probably could have told you over a pie at half-time that every action will have an equal and opposite reaction.
For instance – more infringements that used to be penalties are now set restarts, so why wouldn’t you hold down the opposition on the first play of a set of six if it was only going to cost you one extra tackle in defence, but at the same time allowed you to get your defensive line set and to better control the early tackles as a team worked the ball out of their own end of the field.
You’d be crazy not to employ those tactics no matter where you’re positioned on the ladder, but especially so if you were taking on the gun outfits such as the Panthers.
Which brings us to the verbal jabs between Ivan Cleary and Adam O’Brien after the Panthers’ 24-6 victory over the Knights in Round 7.
As far as coaching flare-ups go it was more backyard barbecue than raging bushfire, but after watching Newcastle give away five first-tackle restarts during the game, Penrith’s boss was probably entitled to mention one of the ways opponents are looking to counter what the undefeated ladder-leaders can do in attack.
Having put it out there in public, it will be interesting to see if Ivan Cleary’s flare into the night sky is logged away, even subconsciously, by the referees in the coming weeks.
Do Des Hasler’s Sea Eagles follow the Knights’ lead this week and try to shut down the Panthers’ effectiveness on early plays by giving away set restarts at the cost of having only one extra tackle to defend?
Maybe it’s the Panthers, having watched Tom Trbojevic carve up the Titans and Tigers in consecutive games, who adopt the tactic themselves as a way of shutting down the turbo-boosted Manly fullback?
Saturday afternoon at Carrington Park in Bathurst will make it the third game in a row that the Sea Eagles have played on a firm, fast surface in the daylight, and with a thoroughbred at the back in the shape of Tom Trbojevic inspiring the Northern Beaches boys back to their best form, the game could turn out to be one of the best attacking showpieces of the season.
It would be ironic, however, if the unintended consequences of the NRL’s off-season rule changes makes it hard for both teams to turn it on for the footy fans of the Central West.
Warren Smith is one of the country’s leading sports broadcasters. He currently calls the NRL for Fox League.