Governing body says no rule changes but tweaks to existing ones

The NRL has announced a series of tweaks to existing rules for the upcoming season – with some welcome changes. 

Wide World of Sports has run through every tweak, adding an explanation of how each tweak is likely to impact rulings through the 2023 season.

Scroll below for the interpretation changes and analysis:

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Grounding the ball

“Tries will now be awarded if the ball rotates from the hand to the wrist or forearm provided there is no obvious separation between the ball and the hand or arm. The new interpretation will allow further clarity for officials when adjudicating grounding.”

Analysis: The NRL has made this change to address re-gripping of the ball while grounding – although the new wording might be phrased poorly, it doesn’t mean a play can ground the ball short of the line and then have it roll up their forearm.

Kotoni Staggs dives over for a hat trick

In the video above, Kotoni Staggs had the ball leave the grasp of his hand just before he reached out to ground it – it was a try but the NRL later came out and apologised, saying it should not have been given. With the new interpretation, awarding a try would now be the right call.

Another example of this came in the middle of last season, when Dane Gagai latched onto a grubber kick but lost control of the ball – and although he then brought it back to his body, he didn’t ‘re-grip’.

Operation of the 18th player rule

The number of failed head injury assessments will be reduced from three (3) to two (2) to trigger the activation of the 18th player. This will allow greater flexibility for Clubs which lose multiple players to head injuries in a match.

Analysis: Player safety should be paramount and this change is another step in the right direction – there have been occasions in previous years where teams have lost players to head knocks and others to different injuries and been unable to activate the extra man.

Brien Seeney, better known online as NRL Physio, labelled the move ‘fantastic’. 

Intervention of Bunker in foul play

“The Bunker may only intervene for acts of foul play which it deems to be reportable. The change will ensure fewer needless stoppages while also confirming a firmer process around foul play intervention.”

Analysis: This has always been a murky area – at times it was required for an offence to be reportable to be ruled on, and at other times not – this does potentially open situations up for debate as to what is worthy of being put on report and what isn’t, and things that should be clear penalties being shown on replay, but not ruled on.

Captain’s Challenge

“A challenge may be initiated after the referee blows his whistle to stop play, rather than only after a decision resulting in a structured restart. Decisions which cannot be challenged will continue to include forward passes, roll balls and discretionary penalties including 10m offside, ruck infringements relating to play-the-ball speed, tackled into touch after held call and dissent.

“A Challenge can be made following the final play in each half provided the referee has not already called half or full-time. The changes will add further clarity for fans, broadcasters, Clubs and players around when a Captain’s Challenge can and cannot be initiated.”

Analysis: Pretty self-explanatory – not a major change and gives challenges a bit more flexibility. 

Off-side infringements at scrums

“A full penalty will be awarded (rather than a set restart), for off-side scrum infringements by the defensive team anywhere on the field. The non-infringing team will retain the option of repacking the scrum or taking the awarded penalty. Any team which deliberately locks the ball in the scrum to trap defenders in an off-side position will also be penalised.”

Analysis: Of all the tweaks that were needed after the 2022 season, this was right near the top. Scrums were a farce almost 100 per cent of the time, with defensive teams almost always opting to give away a meaningless six again from scrum plays.

This change sees the NRL peel back the controversial ‘six again’ rule even further, bringing traditional penalties back to another area of the game.

10m compliance in general play

“Active defenders must have both feet in line or behind the referee when setting the 10-metre defensive line. Referees will have the option of awarding a full penalty for multiple 10m breaches without requiring the mandatory use of the sin bin. Referees can still use the sin bin if they consider breaches to be deliberate or cynical.

“The changes will give further clarity to officials and teams around what constitutes a breach of the rules.”

Analysis: The only issue with this is – like the Bunker change above – working out which 10m infringements are worthy of a sin bin and which ones aren’t.

Leaving rules with a discretionary grey area might sound like a nice idea but it often leads to frustration from fans of a team who cop the short end of the stick. We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out.

Adjudication of completed tackles

“Referees will issue a single call of “held/release” when a tackle is complete, rather than the separate calls of “held” and “release”. The change will address unnecessary slowing of the play-the-ball and improve game continuity.”

Analysis: Speeding up the ruck is usually one of, if not the top priority when the NRL looks at making ‘fixes’ to the sport, and shortening the amount of time between a referee’s call and a player being required to retreat can only be a good thing in that regard.

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