The NRL struggles to be considered a national league, but now it’s jumping straight to international

The NRL has something of a captive audience at the moment, and it seems to be enjoying it.

How else can you explain an article on NRL.com titled “Everything you need to know about the restart” having the unmitigated gall to start with the lyrics to Smash Mouth’s All Star and then list nine offers from various sponsors, before actually delivering any details on the games?

Or the Melbourne Storm making an unabashed play for “diehard Collingwood supporter[s], or a devoted Tiges fan”, for whom rugby league has never been on the radar?

“This weekend we’re the only show in town. We’d love to have you on board, but don’t get it confused — you’re not jumping on a bandwagon,” the club’s website read, emphasising that “there’s no reason you can’t love two brands of footy”.

While the Storm are aiming for their own patch, the league seems to have broader ambitions.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

The Eels thumped the Broncos as top-flight Australian sport made its return.

With few sports going on around the world, the league is taking a victory lap over getting back first and it knows this is its best chance to capitalise.

Before Australian sport went behind closed doors back in March, our cultural cringe was showing when AFL Twitter celebrated as former NFL punter Pat McAfee watched a couple of hours of AFL and revealed he was “hot onto the Aussie rules football game”.

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That was a fortuitous and seemingly accidental moment for the AFL, but when the NRL is being so transparent, the tone is different.

“No helmets, no pads, no fear, no worries” screamed the league as it asked the world if it was ready to meet rugby league. Seemingly adopting the notion popular in American sports that “the world” can basically be defined as the United States, it also posted a handy chart for NFL fans to pick a league team based on their American football allegiances.

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And while getting back onto the field was an ambitious and impressive feat that’s given the NRL a head-start in attracting a few international fans — and the first game back did attract its best regular-season ratings since 2014 — that doesn’t mean everything the return hath wrought is without sin.

Faster doesn’t mean better

A lot was made about the single-referee system in the lead-up to the long-awaited third round of the 2020 season.

The reasons for the move (why pay two people to do a job when one person can do a serviceable facsimile?) made cold financial sense as the coronavirus pandemic threatened to bankrupt the league and teams. But the notion that it would speed up the ruck didn’t really track.

Two men sit at a table during an NRL press conference.

Two men sit at a table during an NRL press conference.

Peter V’landys (left) has been cast as the NRL’s hero since taking over from Todd Greenberg (right).(AAP: Bianca De Marchi, file photo)

Without someone standing over them, players in a tackle will surely be able to get away with more chicanery. And the numbers more or less bear that out.

And yet, in the first game of the second part of the season, the pace was rapid.

In Brisbane’s second defensive set on Thursday night, the referee called for six more twice for slow movements out of the ruck. They were line-ball calls and resulted in a try for Parramatta on its ninth straight tackle.

Gerard Sutton escorted from the field at Sydney's Olympic stadium by two security guards.

Gerard Sutton escorted from the field at Sydney's Olympic stadium by two security guards.

There will be just one referee to bear the brunt of fans’ ire when decisions don’t go their team’s way.(AAP: Mick Tsikas, file photo)

For the rest of the game the calls basically went by without notice, with even Eels coach Brad Arthur and Broncos coach Anthony Seibold saying after the game that they lost track at times.

While punishing the Broncos swiftly and allowing the Eels to keep attacking a fractured and frazzled line makes for a more flowing product, it’s worth asking if the ref standing 10 metres away actually got the call right.

Simply letting the boys play isn’t always the best option

For footy pundits who bemoan the sound of the whistle and the stoppages it brings, calling “six again” in the middle of a set is far less obtrusive (until it isn’t).

Unfortunately, the referee’s primary job isn’t to stay out of the way; it’s to officiate the game.

It’s worth noting that at the end of the Eels’ twice-reset attacking raid, referee Gerard Sutton strangely ruled that Marata Niukore hadn’t grounded the ball and sent the decision to the bunker where it was confirmed that he had indeed convincingly slammed it down.

A camerman man and an assistant wear face masks at the NRL match between Brisbane Broncos and Parramatta Eels.

A camerman man and an assistant wear face masks at the NRL match between Brisbane Broncos and Parramatta Eels.

The images of the NRL are being beamed around the world as one of the few elite sport leagues in action.(AAP: Darren England)

With a second referee watching the ruck, Sutton would have almost certainly been in a better position to see that Niukore grounded the ball cleanly. And with the other four calls that went upstairs he would have had that all-important sounding board to confirm or deny his suspicions.

Getting the call right matters, and the mere absence of a whistle doesn’t mean a game has been officiated well.

Sometimes a persistently rowdy game needs to be stopped and calmed. Sometimes sneaky garbage in the tackle needs to be penalised. Sometimes decisions on ruck infringements are an absolute crapshoot and understanding why a team has been pinged is part of the game.

Seibold also said there needed to be “clarity” around who is supposed to be keeping the defence onside, and in the final seconds on Thursday, Nine commentator Paul Vautin gave a similar assessment of the new order.

NRL referee Ben Cummins speaks to Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck during a rugby league game.

NRL referee Ben Cummins speaks to Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck during a rugby league game.

A referee blowing the whistle at the ‘wrong’ time can infuriate just as many fans as missing a call completely.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

“I’ve enjoyed it,” he began.

“I think they’ve done a great job. And the other rule, six again, no complaints.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement, and a skinny 10 metres could lead to more one-out or dummy-half play and less expansive wing-to-wing football, which could run counter to the league’s hopes of creating more exciting and attacking football.

On Thursday, the better, fitter team took advantage of the new state of play and coasted to a win. We got the right result, and a sport-starved audience seemed to have a good time.

But, like the first meal after two-and-a-half months in the desert, let’s take a breath before we declare that offering of horse and eel the best thing we’ve ever eaten.

Especially with so many people eyeing off a bigger meal coming down the pike in two weeks’ time.