Focus on the ruck again but stats show attacking football is thriving

"You've got to address the wrestle".

South Sydney captain Sam Burgess delivered this message to referee Ashley Klein in the 19th minute of Friday night's top-of-the-table clash with Melbourne at ANZ Stadium.

Storm winger Josh Addo-Carr had just scored to put his side ahead 10-6 and Klein was explaining why Ryan Hoffman had been cleared of an obstruction on Souths halfback Adam Reynolds when Burgess put the game's most contentious issue firmly back in the spotlight.

Whether or not Melbourne were doing anything different to control the speed of the ruck than in other matches is debatable but Burgess's comments are an example of the ongoing battle by coaches and players to influence the way the game is played.

It's why referees have been under so much pressure and scrutiny.

The crackdown at the start of the season on the play-the-ball and teams infringing near their own try-line suited certain sides more than others.

Cue the complaints about how referees blowing penalties was ruining the game and driving fans away, despite the 2.395 million fans who have attended Telstra Premiership matches so far this season being a 2.93 per cent increase on the first 21 rounds of last year's competition.

Since NRL CEO Todd Greenberg's edict after Round 14 for referees to stop "nit picking", there is a perception that some teams have benefited in the last seven weeks.

A look at the fluctuations of the NRL ladder shows that Melbourne have won six games since to climb from fifth to second place, while Brisbane, Sydney Roosters and the Rabbitohs have each won five.

The Rabbitohs, Storm and Roosters have lost one game each during that period and are now the top three teams.

In contrast, three of the four teams in the top four at the time – St George Illawarra, Penrith and the Warriors – have won just three games each and lost four, while Cronulla have won three, lost three and had a bye.

It has been suggested that the Dragons, Panthers and Warriors prefer an open style of game and are now finding it more difficult to penetrate defences.

Certainly, all three teams have been averaging fewer points per match in the last seven weeks than they did in the first 14 rounds.

Yet, there is evidence to suggest the game has rarely been more entertaining, with last weekend's Round 21 matches producing:

  • 65 tries – the most in any round this season
  • 81 line breaks – the most in any round this season
  • 175 offloads – the sixth most in any rounds this season

This has followed an upward trend in those areas in recent weeks and may be a result of the crackdown earlier this season, with players and referees finding a balance in the way the game is played.

However, as the finals near, there is set to be an increasing focus on the nuances and tactics of various teams as their rivals seek to influence the way matches are controlled.

It has been happening for as long as the game has been played, with Phil Gould highlighting at a media briefing organised by the NRL in 2002 how Shark forwards, under the coaching of Chris Anderson, were "finding the ground" to gain quick play-the-balls.

Roosters players were told before their Round 26 win over Cronulla that they could "pile on top" of the likes of Danny Nutley and Chris Beattie if they submitted easily in tackles.

The following season, the NRL invited then Canberra coach Matthew Elliott to address the annual media event at Allianz Stadium and he alerted many of the journalists for the first time about the wrestling tactics of the Storm.

Elliott insisted the media only report on the issue by identifying incidents themselves but a whispering campaign came to a head when the Raiders hosted Melbourne in the opening match of the 2003 finals series.

Referee Tim Mander penalised the Storm three times early in the match for holding down in tackles and warned captain Stephen Kearney about his players grabbing their Canberra opponents around the head.

Allegations over wrestling have plagued the Storm ever since and Burgess's comment to Klein last Friday night suggest the issue will rear its head again in the finals.