The on-field trends and tactics that made NRL in 2020 so different

The end of the weirdest rugby league campaign since Super League is nigh.

Unlike 1997, the last time the season was turned upside down, this time the imperative was more coronavirus than commercial.

But it is the action on the field that has made season 2020 a one-of-a-kind.

Scrums become central

It seems an age ago now, but late in 2019 the NRL announced a series of rule tweaks.

One gave teams with the feed the choice of where to form a scrum.

There were immediate results, attackers bamboozling defences with set pieces and individual brilliance.

Teams quickly chose to position scrums in the middle of the field and the rate of scoring from tries doubled immediately.

Almost 40 tries have been scored within 20 seconds of a scrum win during this campaign.

Aerial protection

Another new rule this season meant a player catching the ball in air couldn’t be tackled, whether they initiated the contact or not.

It was designed to prevent situations like this.

While the effect is slight, now those who win the ball are protected for fractionally longer.

Wingers are still regularly batting the ball back to teammates when in aerial duels.

But the additional protection forces defenders to challenge or back off, tweaking the balance towards the attack.

Here, Melbourne’s Josh Addo-Carr gets stuck under leaping Raider Nick Cotric and then expects him to pass to a teammate. He gets punished.

Teams are taking advantage. More than 500 crossfield kicks have been recorded in this shortened season according to NRL Stats, compared to around 400 in each of the preceding two.

Restart decree

By far the biggest talking point of 2020 was the introduction, from round 3, of the new set restart rule when tacklers slow or impede the play the ball.

Most have praised the rule for its impact on reducing stoppages, turning what was once a penalty into a pack rolling on with a fresh set.

The result has been more action. More runs, more passes. More tackles. More tries.

But there are a few curiosities around its application.

It can be difficult to understand what set restarts are for given how quickly play moves on, and referees are less likely to call them later in matches. There have been two thirds as many set restarts in the second half compared to the first.

Tactical approach

Although set restarts are designed to discourage ruck infringements, some teams haven’t been warned off.

In some cases conceding a restart early in a set may be desirable, for example holding down the tackler for an extra second in order sort out a defensive line.

Grand finalists Penrith and Melbourne have both conceded more set restarts than they have won.

And it’s clear they’re happy to take the risk of slowing the play the ball when their opponent is running the ball out of their half, especially around the 30-metre line.

Chart showing ruck infringement locationsChart showing ruck infringement locations

Fewer offloads, dummy-half runs

It’s clear teams, and referees, are still adapting to the new rules.

And there may be some unanticipated consequences.

There have been fewer dummy-half runs and fewer offloads than in previous seasons, likely as a result of set restarts increasing the number of conservative, one-pass hit-ups early in the tackle count.

That makes the efforts of Parramatta’s Junior Paulo, with 54 offloads — nine more ahead of anyone else and almost as many as he recorded in 2019 despite the shortened season — all the more impressive.

Momentum mysteries

Then there’s the question of momentum.

Some are claiming the new rules have made rugby league, if it wasn’t already, a game of momentum.

Over the past seven years, the team that scores a try registers the next one 55 per cent of the time. This season it’s up to 57 per cent: momentum seems to be king.

But there’s also a skew even later in the game. Tries in the last half hour come from the team that scored the preceding try 60 per cent of the time. That’s a larger increase than in previous years.

Is it fatigue? Is it teams being slow to adapt? Is it the ruthlessness, or resignation, of bubble-imprisoned players?

All remain mysteries meaning there’s plenty to watch in 2021. But first comes Sunday.

The NRL Grand Final will be held at 7.30pm AEDT this Sunday.