For one reason or another the NRL seemed hell bent on introducing changes to its rule-set largely for the sake of change in 2020. It was always going to be a matter of when and not if we would see a change to dead-ball interactions with trainers after the 2019 Grand Final and the NRL acted rapidly here to patch a poorly written rule.
Still, the blight of defenders deliberately falling off tackles to effect 1-on-1 strips will continue and an eligible 18th man to cover for concussions remains missing in action although there is at least a pilot program in the lower grades for the latter this year.
Despite those grievances, fans can rejoice in the fact that excellent defensive sets can now be punished by a gimmicky 20/40 while captains now have the power to elect to set a scrum in one of three different positions – provided they inform the referee within five seconds of their decision. Five seconds of the error? Of the initial scrum marking? The NRL aren’t exactly clear here in their press release so I guess we get to find out in the upcoming trials. Enterprising teams might find the odd opportunity to spring a set play here I guess but adding another layer of convolution to the general sloppiness of scrums feels like a head scratcher in general.
New rules of course mean opportunities to exploit the game for advantages and the one rule that everyone and their blind dog immediately circled in bright red artline in that regard was an adjustment to provide attacking players with the same aerial protections afforded to defenders. Daniel Tupou, Tom Trbojevic and David Fusitua were nearly unstoppable in the air under the previous rule-set, what chance do defenders now have to prevent tries if they can’t touch these freakish athletes until they have re-established themselves on the ground?
It is obvious player safety was at the heart of this rule change but there is a world of a difference in the dangers presented to attackers and defenders in aerial contests due to the nature of the kick chase. While attackers are almost always met with neutral momentum by a defender when tackled in the air, defenders themselves face the risk of being under-cut by a kick-chaser flying through. It feels like the NRL could have instituted a change that punishes defenders for putting a contesting attacker in a dangerous position without instituting wholesale immunity through the process itself.
While the new rule adjustment might be the cause of grievances for both fans and teams as the season plays out, since it is here to stay for the short-term at least – the real question is now how can the Eels benefit from it?
And would you look at that? If we exclude the big boppers in the engine room, and as much as I love them…props are NOT to be trusted with aerial feats of extreme athleticism, the Eels field a pretty impressive corp of paratroopers to attack opposition red zones from the skies. Clinton Gutherson (190cm), Blake Ferguson (191cm), Waqa Blake (190cm) are all adept aerialists in the backline while Ryan Matterson (194cm), Brad Takairangi (194cm) and Shaun Lane (198cm) loom even taller above them as genuine catching options in the back-row. In fact, the Eels kicked deliberately to Takairangi throughout 2019 with considerable success so the blueprint for success is already there.
The wildcard in Parramatta’s would-be ascendancy of the skies lies in the hands of Andrew Johns and his tutelage of the Eels’ young spine. The 8th Immortal has been working closely with all of the blue & gold play-makers but the growth of Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown will be the most scrutinised aspect without a doubt. If they are able to consistently find range with the boot inside the red-zone then the Eels could have a truly terrifying weapon at their disposal.
Conversely, how Parramatta – and indeed the wider NRL – adapt to this new rule defensively will be fascinating to see. Do defenders have to be more aggressive and reckless when it comes to aerial contests, leading to more errors inside their own red-zone? Or is the better strategy to let attackers come down with the ball and then swarm them? The art of the tap-back and the general proficiency in which players offload in the modern game suggests the latter idea is a hugely risky proposition.
Of course, there is also a good chance that I am blowing everything out of proportion and a total of zero of the sixteen NRL franchises look to exploit this rule change. However, where a loop-hole exists it should be expected that the best clubs will look to take advantage of it. All it needs is a Keary/Tupou or hopefully a Moses/Ferguson combination to unlock its potential.