The evolution of rugby league

It’s not your imagination: rugby league this year is more skilful.

At least, that’s the view of some players and coaches after a weekend of upsets engineered by some dazzling attack.

Second-man plays, ‘unders’ and ‘overs’ balls, props exchanging ‘tap-ons’, sublime passes opening up yawning gaps that would not have been there in the past or would have closed just as quickly as they opened...

These seem to be aspects of the game which jumped out of your TV sets over the opening two weeks of the season. OK, things slowed down a little on Sunday – and Sydney Roosters coach Brian Smith disagrees completely with the observation above. More of that later.

“The focus these days is on three people in a tackle, gang tackling,” Canberra prop David Shillington explained to NRL.com after his side’s 24-12 win over Gold Coast at Skilled Park on Saturday.

“So when you can’t slide through the line as much on your own, you’ve just got to use more deviation with an offload or change of direction or the tip-on pass. Then you can create a one-on-one or a two-on-one (tackle), rather than the old three-on-one.

“At our club, Justin Morgan and Andrew McFadden, they take the forwards and they tell you to go up in pairs so there’s an option to tip on. A lot of times, we’re going to dummy and go ourselves but if it’s on, it’s on.

“These days, a lot of the props are trying offloads. Tilsey (Dane Tilse) and Whitey (Brett White) got some really good tip-ons. I’ve seen some from James Graham at the Bulldogs.”

In other words, the ebb and flow of the game’s tactical evolution is flowing again – coaches have found an answer to a negative tactic.

Speed and power have been replaced by guile and cunning. The game now provides a reward for these qualities whereas in the past, it may have punished them.

“In 2010,” Shillington continues, “I was just focused on charging through and getting a quick play-the-ball.

“The next year, 2011, all the focus was on defence. Everyone was getting three in a tackle, chopping at the legs, controlling it. Probably our big guys really struggled last year. This year there’s a bit more deviation, creating more one-on-ones and it’s a lot more effective.”

Titans skipper Scott Prince observes: “The skill level’s up there right from the get-go. It starts in the All-Stars game. That’s where it all kicks-off. That sets the standard for the competition. It’s going to improve with each game.”

But Smith, whose Roosters were beaten 18-0 by Penrith at Allianz Stadium on Sunday, completely disagrees. “I haven’t seen one game this year that made me feel like that,” he says.

“Not one ... to be fair, the Brisbane-Cowboys game the other night would have fallen into the suggestion box you’ve got, but the rest were in mine, I think.

“I’m not saying Penrith are any worse than anyone else at it.

“(But) the instances where ‘wouldn’t let go, got me by both ankles, shake, shake, shake....’ In my head, every time we’ve got the ball in the tackle there’s a little metronome that’s doing the ‘1000, 2000, 3000, 4000” so I can get a bit of a feel myself of ‘are we winning those little battles...’

“Today, I was repeatedly getting to five or six seconds, or 6000. I’m not suggesting Penrith were doing anything illegal...”

So how do we reconcile these opposing views? According to Shillington’s coach, it’s all down to one thing as to whether we see our attacking stars at their best from one game to the next.

“The game is about the play-the-ball,” says David Furner.

“When you talk about speed, halves being able to play with speed, without the ball you are trying to get your defensive line set. All through the comp, you’re seeing some very, very high skill.

“All clubs, there’s a massive focus on skill. You’ve still got to isolate defenders. You isolate defenders so you can get a quick play-the-ball. You can’t do that just running one-out.

“Those first two rounds – wow. There’ve been some special games. I think this is going to be a close competition.”