This week for ‘Your Edge’ we take a look at the impact of the six-again rule on the yardage game, which positions have benefited most, and see how much of a role possession plays in winning margins.
Running On Empty
Numbers are up across the board in the NRL, but it’s in the yardage game that we’re looking at as the regular season comes to an end.
As expected, every position has seen an increase in running metres in 2020. It’s a basic product of the increase in time the ball is in play. The ball is in play more than it was in 2019, therefore, players have more time to do ‘stuff’. But while it was all “bring back the little man” before Round 3, it’s the big fellas in the #13 jersey that have taken advantage of the push through the middle.
Lock forwards are the big winners of the rule change. They’re already passing the ball more this season than last as ball-playing middles become an increasingly important part to the competition’s best attacking teams. While locks have upped their ball-playing, they’ve also seen the largest increase in running metres per game by position. After averaging 110.2 metres per game between Round 1 in 2019 and Round 2 in 2020 (when the six-again rule was introduced), locks have averaged 125.5 metres per game in 2020. Some of the increase in yardage can simply be put down to the extra time the ball is in play, but the threat of passing the ball also keeps the defence on their heels a little bit longer giving locks another step or two before contact.
Conversely, edge back rowers have seen the smallest increase in yardage. Shrinking defences through the middle have opened up space out wide. We’re seeing more skip balls and floating passes out to centres and wingers than we did last season. As a result, the option to hit back rowers with a short-ball have become less appealing with just a small increase from 92.2 metres per game in 2019 to 94.7 metres per game in 2020.
Perhaps the most surprising rise, or rather, a lack of rise, comes in the hooker position. They were talked about as one of the key factors in the rule change. A quicker ruck was said to present hookers with more opportunities to dart out from dummy half. Instead, they have only added 3.9 more metres to their 46 metres per game in 2019.
For the NRL Fantasy players cutting their losses after seeing the Round 20 team lists and thinking ahead to next season, locks benefited in that department too.
The Little Man Isn’t Back
“It will bring back the little man!!”
Despite what the talking heads claimed when the NRL introduced the six-again rule for Round 3 this season, ‘the little man’ isn’t, in fact, back.
Was he ever gone? Probably not. The game is constantly evolving, but the idea that more fatigue would all of a sudden see halfbacks and five-eighths darting through traffic in the middle of the field to break the line and score tries more often than seasons prior hasn’t come to fruition quite like they expected since the rule change. Shocker.
As touched on already, numbers are up across the NRL – some good, others, not so much. Despite the increase in fatigue and the time the ball is in play, halfback and five-eighths haven’t turned defences inside out and caused the havoc so many expected.
Penalties v Ladder Position
Unlike everything else since the six-again rule change – and this is by design, obviously – penalties have decreased. Teams gave away an average of 6.52 penalties each per game last year but the number has dropped to just 5.08 in 2020. However, the make up of how teams rank in penalties conceded v ladder position is much the same.
Three of the top four teams in the competition conceded more than the NRL average penalties per game last year. This year, the Panthers, Storm and Roosters – undoubtedly the three best teams in the NRL – all concede more than 5.08 penalties per game. Meanwhile, three of the bottom four teams have, like last season, conceded fewer penalties per game than the NRL average.
Said to “remove the wrestle” and make it harder for teams (mainly Melbourne) to play at their own pace and help in defence, the only major difference between this season and last is the overall number. Good defensive teams will still trust their line and give away penalties when they need to despite the change.
The NRL is now trialing another gimmick and adding 10-metre offside penalties to the six-again list. While it will only occur across two meaningless games in 2020, there’s a good chance that the good teams find a way to stay at the top of the table if it is introduced for 2021.
Turning Possession Into Points
As the time the ball is in-play increases, the importance of being in possession grows. With teams often forced to defend two or three consecutive sets after giving away six-again restarts while scrambling to set their line, the weight of possession is playing a big part in final winning margins.
Completion rate hasn’t always been a reliable indicator for a good or winning performance, but as the importance of possession grows, teams completing their sets are having a lot more success. Still, the Storm (77.8) and Roosters (77.3%) rank 11th and 13th in completion rate overall while the Panthers lead the NRL at 82.4%.