McKay NRC Column: Law trials create a new unknown in 2019

by Brett McKay

 When the National Rugby Championship kicked off on a Thursday night in 2014, an exciting new era in Australian rugby began on the back of a desire to create a brand of rugby that people wanted to watch as much as players wanted to play.

A part of that at the time was a determination to innovate, with the then ARU quickly putting up their hand to trial a host of new law variations that looked good on paper, but needed verification on the field.

So we were introduced to tweaks like reduced time for conversion and penalty attempts, and the concept of the ‘table-top’, a mysterious and never really properly defined general area around ‘the mark’ from which a free kick could be taken from.

Then there was an allowance around lineout throws, where if the defending team didn’t contest the jump and the throw wasn’t perpendicular to the sideline, it was play on. This one, like most of the original NRC Law variations, was adopted globally after two successful seasons worth of trials in Australia.

The big one back in 2014 was a tweak of the points values, whereby conversions became worth three points and penalties only two, which had the effect of drying penalty goal attempts up almost completely.

Ned Hanigan and Lalakai Foketi will lead the NSW NRC teams in 2019. Photo: Getty ImagesAfter two seasons using this formula, there was another points tweak, where tries became worth six points and any kick at goal was worth two points. Penalty goals became as rare as hen’s teeth. I think there may have been only one attempted that year.

Ultimately, the points values reverted to the traditional, and though I was sceptical of this at the time, it did nothing to stem the flow of tries over the past few seasons.

It’s certainly true that we did see more penalty goals kicked in 2018 but, as ever, there were still upward of 10 tries scored per game.

The NRC has always been about entertaining, expansive rugby, and long may that continue.

In 2019, season six of Australia’s premier domestic competition, World Rugby has again entrusted to the NRC to road test a couple of new law variations they’re keen to see trialled, and because all the teams have only been together for a fortnight at most – with the obvious exception of the Western Force – we again enter a new season with a familiar feeling.

It’s that feeling of not knowing what impact the trials will have on the game.

The questions have come up everywhere this week; at the competition launch in Sydney on Tuesday, at the various club press conferences around the country this week, and the answer from players and coaches alike has been pretty much unanimous.

“Dunno, we haven’t really had time to think about them.”

This year, the variations can be summarised like this:

1. A defending team that is able to hold the ball up in the in-goal area will earn a goal-line drop kick, rather than the traditional five-metre scrum to the attacking team. It applies to ruck and mauls equally, and the kick can happen anywhere along the goal line, a la a 22 restart.

2. The second is the reward of an attacking lineout throw for any team who can kick the ball from inside their half, and find touch on the bounce inside the opposition’s 22.

If the last one sounds a bit ‘rugby league’, that’s because the ’50-22’ kick is modelled on the 13-a-side game’s 40-20 kick, only it’s more generous! In the NRC the target will be only 28 metres away at the closest point, compared to the 40-metre difference in League.

So what sort of impact will they have?

Well, I suspect it might take a few rounds to know. I’m sure there will be attempts this weekend, but how many of them will be successful remains to be seen. And with they be an exit type of kick from the pocket, taken by a flyhalf or a fullback, or might they be better suited to a scrumhalf box kick from the back of the ruck?

They’re all good questions.

The NRC trophy. Photo: Getty Images“I’m actually hoping teams do try and employ the 50-22 kick,” Vikings coach Nick Scrivener told reporters in Canberra on Thursday, “because we could get the ball in counter (attack) and I reckon that’s going to be one of our strengths.”

“If you get it wrong, it can present an attacking opportunity, particularly from the middle of the field that you give up, and give the other team counter-attack ball, which is what I’m hoping the opposition does to us.”

Will the Melbourne Rising take up Scrivener’s challenge, and offer up counter-attacking ball to an all-Brumbies back three of Mack Hansen, Toni Pulu, and Andy Muirhead?

And what of the line dropout rewarding goal-line defence? New NSW Country skipper Ned Hanigan is a fan.

“That's always been a bit of a questionable rule. You hold them up over the line and they get a five-metre scrum, which straight away puts the pressure back on you,” Hanigan said at the launch this week, before going full-country with his elaboration.

“This way it’s a quick hold up, get the ball back, kick to buggery down the field and yeah, so it'll be a bit exciting, it'll open the game up.”

Almost certainly, it will affect the way teams pick and drive near the try line, so as to avoid the risk of being dragged in-goal with the ball held up. Almost certainly defending teams will pile into any lunge at the line to try and create a picture for the referee that the ball hasn’t been grounded.

But will teams risk a penalty try by trying to get under a tryline-bound maul? And what will teams do with the dropout? Do they attempt to regather a short kick at the risk of turnover ball in attacking territory? My strong suspicion is that in the first hour of games, teams will follow Hanigan’s suggestion and kick the cover off it.

But then that might open up opportunities for a 50-22 kick, mightn’t it?

We’re back to the unknown. And it’s going to be fascinating.

Hope you can get to an NRC game somewhere around the country this weekend.

The NRC kicks off on Saturday August 31 with all games LIVE and FREE on