NRL teams need to build for speed

NRL RefereesIn 2009, the NRL is going to be all about speed. Yes, the game continues to get quicker every single year – but this time round get set for an explosion of pace.

Reason?

Dual referees on the field. More specifically, the fact that the new referee or ‘pocket referee’ as he will be called is monitoring the play the ball from close range.

Wrestling should be reduced, grappling and those infamous chicken wings and pressure holds.

Gone will be the famous war cries from referees such as Sean Hampstead, who on almost every single play yelled ‘Movement Now!’ as the players wrestled on the deck. This repetitive cry from Hampstead could almost ruin a game, don’t get me wrong Mr Bean is a good referee – but if you somehow zoned in on his comments during a game, it could even take your focus away from the match commentary – you could simply not avoid his war cry on every tackle from that moment, you just had to turn the game volume down.

Other classics, from the likes of Steve Clark and Bill Harrigan were “Don’t work him! Don’t work him!”. The pocket referee should remove this element, making the main referees job much easier.

You will however still hear Tony Archers trademark scream of ‘Suuuuuuuuuuurender!’ – the ear piercing scream will remain, as main referees will still be enforcing dominant and surrender tackles when they happen.

But the most interesting aspect of the new referee system is how it will affect the various teams. The coaches are remaining quiet, as they don’t want to give anything away to their opposites. But most expect quick-fire tackles and the smaller more mobile teams to benefit greatly. Teams with big forwards or unfit players are most likely to get found out and will be unable to retreat.

The Wests Tigers could be the team to benefit the most from the new referee setup. Wests have had the most mobile forward pack for some years, their virtual ‘surrender’ style attack method in 2005 allowed them to win the NRL Premiership. Sprinting to the defence line, hitting the ground fast and playing the ball lightning quick. They were a machine that was hard to stop and could be ready to pounce now the laws are tipped their way.

Penrith on the other hand could suffer, the Panthers have big bulky forwards who in recent seasons have struggled with the standard pace. Their attempts to slow the play had them hampered by on-going penalties, their lack of speed and fitness absolutely killing them during the 2008 NRL season.

“I think you’ll find that the game will speed up a tad,” referees’ boss Robert Finch was quoted as saying after a meeting with NRL coaches last week.

One thing to remember is, a faster NRL game does not mean a more expansive game. This could realistically mean more dummy half running from NRL teams. If the play the ball is quick, a smart coach with a handy hooker will grab the easy 10m on offer every time. Running from dummy half means little risk, where as spreading the ball through the hands means more chance of a knock on.

Finch believes the new referee will hardly be heard by the public, saying: “He may call out a player’s Christian name but more often than not he won’t say anything to them.”

The new pocket referee is set to move up close to the tackle / ruck area and then fall back right behind the ruck before the ball-carrier rises to his feet.

He is entitled to bark out commands when the defence legitimately monsters the ball-carrier in a legitimate tackle (a “dominant” tackle), or when the ball-carrier meekly falls at the feet of the defence (a “surrender” tackle).

“He can reinforce the ‘dominant’ and ‘surrender’ call of the main referee and repeat it,” Finch said of the convention that rewards the defence for a strong tackle, or punishes the attack for a weak submission.

In other words, by repeating the words “dominant” or “surrender”, the second referee adds to the latitude allowed the defence, thereby limiting the option of running from dummy-half. Similarly, the second referee is entitled to repeat “held” when the ball-carrier has his legs off the ground and is being carried backwards by the defence.

But what happens when the attack dominates the defence, for example when a front-rower powers over the top of retreating defenders?

“The main referee will call ‘move’ straight away,” says Finch, meaning he won’t call out the number of the tackle, the quicker call signalling to the ball-carrier to rise to his feet quickly to play the ball.

“I don’t want the pocket referee reinforcing the movement call because, if I was a coach, I’d be instructing the defenders not to move off the ball-carrier until they hear the second ‘move’ call.”

What about a neutral tackle, when the attack and defence meet on equal terms?

“The assist referee can’t verbalise,” Finch says. “The main referee calls movement.”

So it seems Finch has found the answers to combat a game saturated by dummy-half running, one of the biggest blights on the sport.

“We don’t want a game of touch football like we had with Super League,” he said of the era when then-Broncos coach Wayne Bennett conned the other coaches into a fast game and his giant pack of forwards, together with two monster wingers, went from one end of the field to the other via the running dummy-half passing to a one-out runner.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy said two referees controlled a practice session at training last week and claimed, “It seemed to run smoothly”.

Their performance allayed fears expressed at the coach’s meeting that the second referee would restrict attacking options around the ruck, or impede the defence’s ability to counter them.

“Their positioning was not a problem,” Bellamy said. “It looks like it’s going to be a good system.”

But how tempting will it be for him to say something? How long before he barks out movement calls, resulting in more dummy-half running at a time when fans are demanding less?

The NRL has now added to its number of referees at a time other businesses are downsizing. The problem with employing people with only little responsibilities is their need to justify their existence.

So dont’ expect the new referees to stare at the ruck, remaining idle for too long. It could only be a matter of time before we hear multiple cries of “Movement Now!” or “Don’t Work Him, Don’t Work Him!”

Ahhhh NRL, it’s only a few short weeks away. Bring it on.

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