NRL 2020: A Focal Point Of Rugby League's Evolution

It's remarkable that we're here looking back on a completed 2020 NRL season.

Round 3 looked as though it could be the last rugby league action of the year when the competition was suspended. Even when Peter V'Landys and the NRL talked about a return to the field as early as possible, the overwhelming reaction was to death-ride any date put forward and assume the worst.

Instead, May 28 saw the return of the NRL season. The players, staff and fans behaved themselves and made it through to the Grand Final on October 25 relatively unscathed.

So much could have gone wrong for a game that has a history of shooting itself in the foot at the most frustrating times but here we are, dissecting a season that will always be remembered for its off-field challenges.

While 2020 will be an outlier 20-game season and talked about as 'the bubble year', it may also go down as a focal point of rugby league's evolution.

As if the complications of COVID and the bubble that came with it weren't enough, the NRL decided to make significant changes to the game in the form of a return to one referee along with the introduction of the six-again rule.

The changes have been met with mixed results. Some love them blindly, others hate them in the same way. In reality, it all lands somewhere in the middle.

V'Landys wanted to promote more fatigue in the game and dished out the old trope of "bringing back the little man" to win over fans. The little man was never gone so there has been little change there. However, with the six-again rule has come an increase in ball-in-play time and therefore fatigue. Whether or not that is a good thing is still up for debate.

We saw just over three extra minutes of action with the ball in-play throughout 2020 (up to 57:31) compared to 2019. With referees waving six-again rather than blowing a penalty, we saw fewer instances of kicks to touch and the dead time that comes with it. Overall, the ball was in play 5.8% more this season than last.

We referenced the increase in 'stuff' that has come with more time the ball is in play in the build-up to the 2020 Grand Final. Simply, there is more time for things to happen. 

Running metres have increased in line with ball-in-play time. The 5.9% rise from 3,168 running metres per game in 2019 to 3,356 metres per game in 2020 is roughly as expected. Despite that, the influence of the yardage game overall remains the same. Now eight of the last ten premiers have conceded the fewest or second-fewest running metres per game in the competition.

The influence the extra time has had on the yardage game on both sides of the ball is where a lot of the fatigue has set in. Points and line breaks have both increased as a result.

Points per game have increased from 39.33 in 2019 to 42.97 in 2020 while line breaks jumped from 7.41 per game to 8.38 per game

Prolonged periods of attack thanks to the six-again rule give attacking teams extra opportunities to break down the defence while the defending team deals with the fatigue that comes with defending eight, nine or ten consecutive tackles.

There is more rugby league being played than 12 months ago and some of it is a little bit different now too.

Whether it ends up being for the greater good or rules revert back to what they were not long ago, 2020 is another chapter in rugby league's evolution.

With "shape" and "block plays" taking on an overly negative connotation over the last few years, plenty were eager to attribute the new six-again rule as the death of structured rugby league. 

The reality couldn't be further from the truth. 

Shape, block plays and structure still dominate the game. The good teams do it all well to pile up points while the bad teams - you won't believe this - do it all poorly and don't pile up points.

Only the Storm have scored more total points over the last three seasons than the Roosters. The tri-colours are one of the best attacking teams in the NRL era and even in a down year managed to equal the Storm at the top of the attacking standings with 27.2 points per game this season.

Shape, block plays and structure define much of their attack, as seen in this try in Round 5 and many more throughout the following rounds.

It's not the first time this try has come up here and it's unlikely to be the last given how well it played out.

Victor Radley first runs a lead line with Kyle Flanagan taking possession out the back of the block. The Bulldogs do well to close this one down. However, the structure of the Roosters attack is reliant on their constant shape. With numbers on the short side but barely a second to breathe, both Jake Friend and Luke Keary point to the right edge while James Tedesco and Joseph Manu call for the ball to come their way. Angus Crichton had just run what the Roosters had hoped would be the second lead line of that shift before it was shut down. Still, he knows exactly where to be and doesn't stop moving until he's putting the ball down over the line. 

Note yet another lead line from Manu which holds up Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Jake Averillo for a gap to open up for Crichton to score untouched.

Shape

Block 

Structure 

Melbourne scored the most points in the competition throughout 2020. They scored from everywhere on the field. Whether it was from in their own half or through a good ball set, the Storm could threaten the defensive line.

Stretching the defence from scrum line to scrum line, the Storm regularly found acres of space on the edges when coming out of their own end. 

So many Storm sets - no matter where on the field they started - were structured a similar way: One or two through the middle, search down one side, one out pass from the ruck if the shift failed, search down the other side.

This one against the Rabbitohs in Round 17 is a prime example with the set restart included. 

After taking two tackles through the middle and being presented with a set restart, the structure remains the same. They take another through the middle to bring the defence further in. The right side shift keeps the defensive line drifting before Melbourne exposes the space Souths left on the other side of the field. 

That set also highlights one of the more significant impacts of the six again rule change and the first stages of how the game will evolve around it.

Middle defences need to work harder to close up the space given the extra defensive assignments they are given on a repeat set. That has seen the defensive line shrink overall which opens up space on the edges. A fast and flowing attack through the middle of the field allowed the Panthers to lead the competition in yardage with 1,865 running metres per game and make the Grand Final.

In the instance of Papenhuyzen's try above, Melbourne had taken two tackles up the middle before hitting the left-edge back rower following the six-again call, and continued to send the ball the same way to split the left-side half and centre. Souths are now loaded heavily on the left side of the field as they wait for Melbourne to continue the onslaught.

A long Cameron Smith pass out of dummy half instantly gives Melbourne a numbers advantage over South Sydney's tight retreating defensive line.

On the return shift, the Rabbitohs right-edge backrower has a massive gap between himself and his inside man. Upon closing it, the centre and wing are forced in-field with the Storm having a five on three advantage by the time Cameron Munster gets on the outside shoulder of his man.

Stretching the defence is nothing new and Smith is one of the best to ever do it. However, it has become a larger part of the game in 2020 thanks to the introduction of the six-again rule.

Lofted balls over the top of a rushing defence to a winger and face-balls across a backrower or centre to the man outside them have also become a lot more common this season. Still presented with plenty of lead runners and regular questions in defence, edge defences have also had a lot more space to defend more often this season. 

Few have assessed a defensive line on a block play and put a lead runner through a gap better than Shaun Johnson in recent years. This year, Sione Katoa and Ronaldo Mulitalo dined out on lofted long-balls for the Kiwi international to register an NRL and career-high 23 try assists.

Matt Dufty has always had the speed and agility to threaten a defensive line. It wasn't until the regular opportunities to throw what we now know is an excellent face-ball arose in 2020 that he started to live up to the hype in attack.

The gaps most expected to come through the middle under the new rules have been there. Even with a focus on closing up the middle of the field and shrinking the defensive line, tired forwards will still be slow off their line. 'A' defenders on the other side of the ruck to where the ball is first passed, in particular, can't afford to get lazy with the speed of the game increasing.

This Jason Taumalolo try here is something I expect to see more of next season as teams make further adjustments to our evolving game. 

The second marker stops after seeing what he thinks will be a regulation drop off while Joseph Tapine who is defending at 'A' on the other side isn't anywhere close to the action after being involved in the previous tackle.

Opportunities to turn the ball in will be there against a line that has defended eight or nine consecutive tackles.

X shapes with a man cutting against the grain (like Penrith and Canberra did at times this season) may also become a standard action among the better attacking teams in 2021.

While constantly evolving, it typically takes years for the game to adjust to new rules, tactics or technology. Coaches were given just a fortnight to pick holes in a rule the NRL hadn't even totally thought through. 

We started to see how teams will adjust their attack in 2020. Anticipating the change of direction and subtle changes to block plays, the adjustments will keep coming in 2021. Defences will soon need to catch up as sliding becomes less effective to lead runners and halves drifting across the field in different directions.

New rules or not, the game is constantly changing.

We've been given a glimpse into the future throughout what was a memorable 2020 NRL season should the six-again rule continue.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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