When NRL CEO David Gallop commented at last week's season launch that 2011 was the most anticipated year in recent memory, he wasn't just paying lip service to the assembled hordes – rarely have we seen such dramatic change across the board as we have over the past few months.
The coming season will see the long-awaited formation of an independent commission to run rugby league in Australia, ending News Limited's 16-year stake and giving both clubs and fans a greater say in shaping the future of the NRL.
Already moves are underway to streamline the sport with the various ruling bodies – NRL, ARL, NSWRL and CRL – preparing to move into the one building at Moore Park this time next year.
First concrete was poured at the Rugby League Central site last weekend.
Within NRL walls there have been a number of key personnel changes heading into 2011, with Nathan McGuirk the new Director of Football Operations – effectively taking over from departing Chief Operating Officer Graham Annesley – and former Wests Tigers captain Mark O'Neill appointed Judiciary Secretary and Football Operations Manager.
Also on board is Canberra great Brad Clyde, who has accepted a role with the match review committee.
But by far the biggest change for the game itself this season is the appointment of Bill Harrigan and Stuart Raper as referees' coaches, replacing Robert Finch in rugby league's most difficult job.
The pair spent the off-season meeting with players, ex-players and coaches to work through the entire rulebook and have devised a 'back to basics' approach to their reign as a direct result.
It's the first time the NRL has appointed two referees coaches, with Raper in charge of liaising with clubs and coaches and running training sessions, while Harrigan will look after performance, rules and appointments.
"We've decided that's the best way to go because Bill has a better feel if a ref is doing something right or wrong," Raper tells NRL.com.
The key rule changes introduced for 2011 are:
- Defenders will be rewarded for making a good 'legs' tackle, with referees allowing them more time. They will also be allowed, within reason, to spin on top if they are the lone defender in order to get to marker;
- Dominant tackles will only be called if dominance is gained upon impact. Gang tackles will not be called dominant;
- A penalty will only be awarded against a leg pull if it directly affects the speed of the play-the-ball;
- The attacking player must play the ball on the mark and will be penalised if he takes steps either forward or to the side;
- Defenders will only be penalised for making contact with the kicker if contact is deemed unnecessary;
- Any player that takes a kick-off or drop-out in front of the line by any margin will be penalised;
- Tries will be awarded if decoy runners have no effect on the try being scored;
- Scrums must bind correctly and players must not break until the referee calls 'out'. Players will be penalised if they break early; and
- The 10-metre advantage rule has been scrapped, with referees to determine when a side has taken their advantage.
There have also been changes in the video referee's room, with Bernard Sutton moving upstairs as a result of ongoing knee problems and Paul Mellor and Rod Lawrence both video ref trainees.
Raper and Harrigan have promised to communicate the reasons behind contentious decisions more effectively to fans and the media each Monday following their weekly round reviews and will split the eight games between them in order to better analyse every play.
While referees will forever be in the rugby league spotlight, already the NRL's new pairing have shown they have the game's best interests at heart, with clubs and players responding positively to what lies ahead in 2011.