The sport of Rugby League at the NRL level has never been in better shape. This year’s title will be one of the most hard earned and celebrated. Out of adversity, there is opportunity. The NRL has grabbed theirs with both hands and have potentially created a product that will be the best in Australian Sport.
The beauty of this year’s revised competition is that it is so pure and simple. Every club was forced into a 7 week break under the same policy (Warriors excepted) and now will play 18 games straight in a bid to make the playoffs. No Origin period, no byes, no rep round and, most importantly, no penalties.
Let’s start with no Origin period. For eight weeks the season is disrupted by Origin. Don’t get me wrong, I love everything about Origin but it does have a negative influence on the competition. The clubs are forced to play diluted teams because of either the draw, not wanting to back up players or, even worse, injury. The product deteriorates and so does the level of interest from the fans. The form lines go out the window as top 8 teams manage the period as best they can and bottom 8 teams get an opportunity to find some points to survive. It's like making the leading group of a marathon run at half pace from the 14km mark to the 28km mark.
The most important change introduced by the NRL is 1 referee. Whether it was due to financial reasons or not, it is the biggest improvement and one the game desperately needed. Having 2 referees was supposed to speed up the game and stop the wrestle. It did the opposite. Penalty counts exploded, more players were sin-binned and the defensive wrestle tactics became more refined. Also, it cost the NRL twice as much to officiate a product that frustrated everybody – players, coaches and, most importantly, the fans.
Last week was officially Round 3 of the 2020 NRL season, but it was really the beginning of a promising new era for the game of Rugby League. The players flew out of the blocks. The initial exchanges were brutal and the referees stayed out of the way. Single digit penalty counts instead of 20 odds gradually brought about a level of fatigue that each team had to deal with. The 6 again rule wasn’t overused, and each contest found a natural rhythm. If you were good enough, you won on your merits and if you weren’t you lost or got thrashed if you deserved it.
The events of 2020 have been enormously challenging, however they have given the NRL an opportunity to create change. After one week this season looks fantastic and there are 17 rounds to go. Now, there are no breaks in the schedule and nowhere to hide. The club that wins the title will have earned it undisputedly. The clubs that finish at the other end of the ladder will get a true indication of where they are at.
What looked like the end a couple of months ago has created a new beginning. Rugby League is back better than ever. It’s a beautiful thing.