This time last year, NRL referees blitzed players with penalties and kept it up into the semi-finals.
It wasn’t unusual to see games record penalty counts as high as 30 stoppages. This was a necessary evil in the eyes of some, but a huge turn-off for lovers of free-flowing rugby.
I hollered a massive ‘Boo!’ at this trend, dismayed that fatigue had become less of an influence as penalty goals decided results.
The trend reminded me of the ‘spotto’ game I’ve often played with the kids on long car trips. The rules are simple. You yell, ‘Spotto!’ when you see, say, a yellow car and the winner is the the player who spots the most yellow cars.
A mental phenomenon follows. You start seeing yellow cars everywhere. The science behind this is linked to a brain function that boils down to this: whatever we focus on, we see more of it.
Last year, when refs directed their laser-like focus at finding infringements, guess what happened? Yes, they saw plenty of them – far too many of them in my humble opinion. It’s a wonder they weren’t crying ‘Spotto’ every time they brought those whistles to their lips.
Fact is, look hard enough and you can find a reason to come up with a penalty on any and every play. That’s what happened last year and it was awful to watch. Add to this the video referee process and observing the stop/start action from the grandstand was as much fun as going to the dentist.
Graham Annesley’s appointment as co-supremo of NRL day-to-day business has seen a merciful reduction in the number of penalties, making a major contribution to the pace of play and its fluidity.
Referees’ management of the game now sees much more and better communication about what they want players to do, rather than focusing after the fact on what they did wrong.
The happy result is that players are responding to this very direct management as refs keep games lively.
Another improvement fans have cause to celebrate: better use of technology in the bunker has seen decision-making time more than cut in half.
So let’s have a look at the impacts this is having and what we can expect as the 2019 season hits its stride.
First, and most important, we are seeing significantly more ball-in-play, which simultaneously reintroduces and reinforces the need for skill and decision-making in the last 10 minutes of halves, when fatigue becomes a wild-card factor.
This is were the most exciting football lives, as ball movement and risk-taking can deliver points while demonstrating the unbelievable talents of NRL star players.
Games with increased live ball also move strategies of play away from boring, structured football towards the approach that requires key play makers to keep eyes peeled for opportunities to break down oppositions and light up the action.
The outcome is that fans get to see far more football – and they have far fewer reasons to boo.
This early in the season, players and teams are still adjusting to the game’s increased speed, but be assured that as coaches dive into where vulnerabilities are popping up and how best to exploit them, we are in for some great footie in 2019.
So, on behalf of the fans like me who love fast, open rugby league, I’d like to say thank you to Graham. Believe me, I’m in as much shock as anyone else that I’m giving the refs a big wrap, let alone their boss.