The third season of the NRC has been run and won, so a big congratulations to Perth Spirit, who, after some near misses, have finally won the major prize. Good to see the trophy headed away from one of the traditional rugby heartlands.
Which leads nicely into the question of the NRC itself. It appears to be a truth that by its very presence, the NRC is a divisive creature, on a couple of fronts:
- By its existence – the polarisation pivots on whether we need another rugby competition, the so-called “third tier”, or should we be finding a way for the nation’s premiership clubs (which is usually shorthand for Sydney and Brisbane) to build on their existing tribalism; and
- The Law variations used in the NRC, with the division between the traditionalists, and the experimentalists.
I’m not going to address the first issue here, as that has been covered elsewhere, and will continue to generate chatter on this forum and others. However, I am going to dig a bit deeper on the second point and try and understand the benefit, if any, of the NRC Law variations.
Before I proceed, a quick disclosure – I am an unadulterated fan of the NRC, so I’m not going to be sitting on the fence about that. However, I will endeavour to present the evidence as objectively as possible. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just resort to my Trump card, and make up shit!
UNDER THE RADAR
So, what exactly are the Law variations? Introduced in 2014 for the initial year of the competition, they have been tweaked a little along the way, as we will see. More interestingly, some of them are no longer Law variations. Why? Because they are now part of the main body of Law, if not globally, then at least in rugby in Australia. For example:
- Manage a time limit (30 seconds) to set and feed a scrum;
- Scrum feed – The referee will indicate with a non-verbal signal when the half back is to feed the ball;
- Defending half-back cannot enter area (“pocket”) between flanker and number 8 (also used previously in Australian U19 Law);
- Instead of the 4 try bonus point system, the winning team is awarded a bonus point for finishing 3 or more tries ahead of their opponents. A bonus point will be awarded to the losing team finishing within 8 points (7 points outside of the NRC) of the winning team; and
- After half-time and full-time, if awarded a Penalty Kick, you can kick to touch and play the lineout (Law 5.7e). This is still being rolled out (which has caused some confusion), but it is already written into the Laws of the Game).
There are others too, ones I call the “common-sense” variations:
- A ‘table top’ area allowed for quick taps (Law 21.2a). Any tap must be taken from behind the mark. All scrum PKs/FKs must be taken in line with the number eight; and
- In a lineout, if the non-throwing team does not genuinely contest for the ball, the straightness of the throw is not considered (Law 19.6). In effect, this is how most referees adjudicate the throw anyway. There is more detailed provided, but the summary of that is that there must be a genuine effort to throw straight and be within the outside shoulder.
Then we have the time-savers. Sadly, there is a paucity of good, free and readily available statistics which would highlight the impact of these in terms of playing time per match. However, they are all designed to reduce dead ball time, and increase playing time. They are:
- Reduced time limits for conversions to 60 seconds and penalty kick attempts down to 45 seconds. (Law 9.B.1e and 24.1b); and
- Quick throw-ins are OK if touched by any player or support staff; must be the same ball as per current law. (Law 19.2d).
THE BIG GUNS
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the elephant in the room – the point scoring system.
I mentioned above that the NRC Law variations have been divisive, but this is the lightning rod for that divisiveness. Most, if not all, of the other variations listed above, have either passed into Law, or been accepted by those watching the NRC, but the scoring system is the one that generates the most discussion, and not without reason.
Even those at the highest levels of the game have differing views. For example, Robbie Deans, always a lateral thinker and at times a contrarian, had the view that penalty goals should be worth four points, on the basis that this means the price for ill-discipline becomes higher, and therefore is a disincentive to infringe.
On the other hand, Phil Waugh believes the points system should be the same as the rest of rugby, in order to prepare the players for the higher levels of the game and ensure the matches have a similar style, rather than being a more running game.
So, who is right? Is there a correct answer? What do the statistics tell us, if anything?
I have taken data from the NRC and benchmarked it with the Super Rugby equivalents. In each case, I have taken the team with the best record in each category, which isn’t necessarily the tournament champion. Carries, Clean Breaks, Metres and Offloads were all similar, with variations of +/-3%, which given the nature of the data, I deem inconclusive.
|Total Defenders Beaten||231||484|
|Team||NSW Country Eagles||Lions|
|POINTS SCORED (Minor Premiers, Home & Away)|
|Team||NSW Country Eagles||Hurricanes|
|Total Points Scored||280||458|
|POINTS AGAINST (Minor Premiers, Home & Away)|
|Team||NSW Country Eagles||Hurricanes|
|Total Points Against||190||314|
However, looking at Defenders Beaten, Tries Scored, Points Scored and Points Against, we have a very different story. An increase of 13.6% of tries scored per game, along with the increased value for an NRC try, equates to an increase in Points Scored of 31%, which roughly reconciles. Similarly, defenders beaten looks like an indicator as to why Points Against increases by 30%.
Yet the other measures are largely flat – so the same amount of effort, but with more tries (and points) scored. What can we conclude from this? Weaker defence? Super Rugby is played at a higher pace, as the teams do more work, in presumably less game time? One of the statistics not available is actual playing time, which may illuminate matters further.
I suspect most would realise that throughout the NRC, a converted try has been worth eight points, but I suspect fewer would have considered the subtle but important change made to this year’s scoring system.
In the first two years, a try remained at five points, but a conversion was worth three points. This season tries increased to six points, and conversions reverted to two, which also meant all kicks, for the first time, were worth two points. This has changed the risk/reward balance again, and even more in favour of the try.
At a minimum, it’s a 3:1 play (try versus penalty goal), with a possible payout of 4:1, as opposed to the 5:3 or 7:3 ratio in the main game. That’s a dramatic shift in the odds, and we’ve seen the behavioural change over the course of the NRC. The first season saw a dramatic decrease in penalty goals, and unless I’m mistaken (and no doubt someone will correct me), I’m not aware of a penalty goal being kicked this season.
And why would you? There’s really only a couple of scenarios where you would kick for a penalty goal – when the scores are tied at full-time, or possibly to chew up time on the clock in a close game when a body (or bodies) was in the sin bin. Even if you’re behind by two at full time, you’d arguably go for a try, either directly, or by calling a scrum and looking for either a pushover or a penalty try.
Let’s not forget that with all scoring options now being even numbers, that the least difference between two teams can only ever be two, in which case kicking for goal doesn’t really solve the problem.
WHAT DOES THIS TELL US?
Now that we’ve distilled the information we have, however limited, it appears the following is happening:
- More tries and points are being scored per match than in Super Rugby;
- The NRC defences aren’t as robust;
- NRC team work rates are comparable to those of Super Rugby teams;
- A number of NRC Law variations have filtered into the rest of the game; and
- Penalty goals are dead to the NRC.
If the goal of the NRC is to prepare Australian rugby players for the next step into Super Rugby, then having the NRC teams generating similar statistics to Super Rugby teams indicates the NRC is on the right track. There is an argument that defences need to improve, and given how obvious a statistic that is, we may well see such an emphasis from the coaches in next year’s NRC. Only time will tell!