When a return to action date of May 28 was first set by the NRL in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, there was understandable scepticism about the early resumption of the league.
Player welfare was at the forefront of every sporting competition around the world, but wary of the financial implications that would follow without any live action, the NRL was the most eager to make a hasty comeback.
Estimations of $13 million losses per round were reported by news outlets when the league was first ground to a halt back in March.
With that in mind, ARLC commissioner Peter V’landys established what most considered to be a very optimistic return date given the plethora of challenges that lay ahead of re-starting the competition.
The absence of crowds were among those issues, as was the problem of re-integrating the New Zealand Warriors, a club that has been granted special exemption to travel to Australia and base itself in New South Wales, away from the families of players and staff.
In spite of these challenges, though, the NRL has flourished in its return to action, becoming the second major sporting league – aside from German football’s Bundesliga – to get back up and running while COVID-19 continues to ravage parts of the world.
Entertaining bumper television audiences with an array of high-octane clashes throughout round three, the NRL has set the bar for other footy codes to follow in the coming weeks and months.
The way in which the NRL delivered its product to expectant fans, of whom had been deprived of any kind of oval-shaped football for over two months, has been innovative and exhilarating.
It would come as no surprise, then, to see a raft of new league followers drawn to the code, and if interest in rugby union is to be resurrected in New Zealand and Australia leading into their respective domestic Super Rugby competitions, officials would be wise to take note of how the NRL has burst back into the fore.
Arguably the most compelling aspect of rugby league’s return has been the revised law changes around the sport’s ruck rules.
Last month’s implementation of the ‘six again’ ruling was devised in a bid to keep the ball in play for longer and maintain the flow of the game.
In essence, the rule has been tweaked so that when the defensive team infringes in the play-the-ball area of the tackle, the attacking side will automatically be handed a fresh set of six tackles instead of a full-blown penalty.
Rugby Australia have confirmed that the Tokyo-based Sunwolves won't compete in the revised domestic Super Rugby competition.https://t.co/gVqzOZnbVM
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 1, 2020
By eliminating the option to kick for touch or have a shot at goal from those types of discrepancies, matches have become more riveting as attacking sides are regularly given front-foot advantage while the ball stays active for longer periods at a time.
Although league’s ruck is vastly different to that of union’s, thus making it difficult to directly copy and paste such a concept into the XV-man game, the fact that the 13-man code has even taken measures to speed up the game to make it more appealing to its television audience is admirable.
Not only that, but it is a stroke of genius, given that the television audience for the weekend’s opening game between the Brisbane Broncos and Parramatta Eels was significantly greater than that of any other regular NRL round three clash of yesteryear.
Regardless of whether they were league fans, union supporters, or sports nuts craving some live action, all 1.3m viewers watching on from home did so with a keen interest, eager to wet their appetite for some form of football after months without it.
What better way to sell your code to a sport-deprived global audience than by making it as exciting as possible with a simple yet effective law alteration.
If the union’s governing bodies in New Zealand and Australia want to appeal to the masses and reinvigorate interest in the game, their domestic Super Rugby competitions stands as the perfect opportunity to follow the NRL’s lead.
While the ‘six again’ can’t directly be translated from league to union, other courses of action can undoubtedly be taken to increase the pace of the game.
News of temporary law trials approved by World Rugby amid the coronavirus outbreak filtered through last week, including no options for scrums from penalties or free kicks, no scrum re-sets if there is no infringement, and goal line drop-outs instead of 5 metre scrums if an attacker is held up over the opposition tryline.
These are all good steps to eradicate the significant time-wasting that comes with scrums, but perhaps one further step could be taken by introducing a scrum clocks for when both sets of forward do pack down from a knock on or forward pass.
That’s just one suggestion, but if it does anything to keep the ball alive and uphold the tempo of the game as much as the ‘six again’ rule in the NRL has done, then it’s surely one that shouldn’t be discredited.
The other notable addition since the league returned to action has been the artificial crowd noises used to paper over the fact that there was nobody in the stands for any of the weekend’s eight matches.
With public gathering restrictions keeping fans from attending games, and thus nullifying a real-life atmosphere, the NRL have added crowd sounds effects to enhance the viewing experience for the television audience.
To their credit, it has worked surprisingly well, and has given the sport a much more lively feel to it than the Bundesliga, which has been described as “eerie” to watch with no sound effects while players battle it out in front of massive empty stadia.
Without the noise generated by crowds, live commentary could be at risk of becoming overbearing as broadcasters would then talk for the sake of talking and filling in the void – as has been the case in Germany – rather that talking for the sake of entertaining and informing.
It’s unknown whether NZR or RA have plans to add fake crowd noises to give viewers an artificial sense of atmosphere, but if they hadn’t prior to the NRL’s relaunch, it must certainly be something to be taken into consideration.
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