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Why every NRL team now needs a vice-captain

St George Illawarra halfback Ben Hunt and his Penrith counterpart Nathan Cleary are expected to be involved in deciding when their teams use a captain’s challenge as the new rules increase the number and importance of on-field leaders.

However, regardless of who is in charge at the time, any team which concedes a field goal during golden-point extra time is expected to claim a defender was obstructed if they have a challenge remaining in a bid to keep their hopes of winning alive.

The Broncos, Dragons, Rabbitohs, Titans and Wests Tigers have announced new captains this season and it is no coincidence that all five have opted for experienced players, as the captain’s challenge and ability to choose where to set a scrum have placed added responsibility on NRL skippers.

Only one player from each team can communicate with the referee during matches but the identity of the nominated captain will change if he is replaced or injured.

Tyson Frizell is set to captain St George Illawarra in the absence of Cameron McInnes in Sunday night’s match against Wests Tigers but, after his success with the captain’s challenge during the Charity Shield, Hunt is sure to be heavily involved.

Tamou confirms captaincy and reacts to captain’s challenge

As a front-rower, Panthers captain James Tamou does not play a full game so Cleary is likely to deputise when he is off the field and he will also have input as he is usually close to the play.    

“I’m the one that’s an 80-minute player,” the halfback said. “I think if Jimmy is off the field [that will fall] to myself.”

While the captain’s challenge is set to put more focus on the 16 NRL skippers, it will also encourage an increase in co-captains and leadership groups.

Each team needs to have a designated deputy who can take over and Brisbane, Canterbury, Cronulla, Gold Coast, Penrith and Sydney Roosters each have forwards as captains who are unlikely to regularly play the full 80 minutes.

“Every captain is going to have to make that call and every captain has a core leadership group around him in the team,” Parramatta centre Michael Jennings said.

Leadership teams important

Only Canberra (Jarrod Croker and Josh Hodgson), Wests Tigers (Benji Marshall and Moses Mbye) and the Roosters (Boyd Cordner and Jake Friend) have official co-captains but every team is now going to need a vice-captain or group of on-field leaders.

Clint Gutherson is the Eels captain but he will look to the likes of Jennings and halfback Mitchell Moses for guidance on whether to use a captain’s challenge or choose to pack a scrum 10 metres in-field, 20 metres or in the centre of the field.

Ditto for the other captains: Alex Glenn (Broncos), Josh Jackson (Bulldogs), Wade Graham (Sharks), Kevin Proctor (Titans), Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles), Cameron Smith (Storm), Mitchell Pearce (Knights), Michael Morgan (Cowboys), Tamou (Panthers), McInnes (Dragons), Adam Reynolds (Rabbitohs) and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Warriors).

If Glenn (hamstring) is ruled out of Thursday night's season opener in Townsville, Patrick Carrigan is set to be the youngest opening round captain but the 23-year-old will have support from the likes of Anthony Milford, Jack Bird and Tevita Pangai jnr.

Reynolds: I'll back teammates on challenging calls

Penrith hooker Api Koroisau said a strong leadership group was important at all NRL clubs. 

"I went to the South Sydney team as a rookie with the likes of Sam Burgess, Greg Inglis and John Sutton really leading the way and leading by example," Koroisau said.

"I've come to this club and Jimmy Tamou, Isaah Yeo and Nath stepping up has been massive for us. People usually follow what they see, not what they're told, and those boys are definitely leading the charge."

With captains having 10 seconds to lodge a challenge to a ruling before a structured restart, they will need to rely on other senior players as each team is entitled to only one wrong call per match.

“If it’s over the other side of the field there is no point me rushing across to try and see what’s happened or be the sheriff in it all,” Reynolds said. “We have got players all over the field we can delegate that to and leave it in the boys’ hands whether they think it is right or wrong.”

Signalling from the coach's box

Dragons coach Paul McGregor revealed after the Charity Shield that he was considering using coloured paddles, with one side red and the other green, to signal to his captain whether to challenge a referee’s decision.

It is unclear whether there will be enough time to do so within the 10 seconds allowed.

“It will be interesting to see how that is used as well and whether it can be signalled from the box or if there is enough time for that sort of stuff,” Friend said. “I supposed we are going to have to have some trust in our players as well. A lot of time you know if it is an illegal play or not.”

Cleary said he would rely on teammates to let him know if they thought the referee had made a mistake.

“At the end of the day it kind of comes down to the player who's closest at the time. They probably know what happened, especially with dropped balls and stuff like that,” Cleary said.

“There's a lot of different scenarios in a game. Ultimately if you know there's a wrong call you just throw your hand up and trust that.”

St George Illawarra prop Paul Vaughan said players would be wary of the risk of losing a challenge if they weren’t confident of having a decision overturned.

Episode 2 - Michael Morgan

“We had a couple of good cracks at it in the Charity Shield against Souths and if you know something yourself that you want to run past the captain you have only got a short period of time to do that but if you know it is not the right call and you are certain about that it is a good idea,” Vaughan said.

“If you are involved in the play and it didn’t go your way I think you know pretty much straight away. I don’t think you will be tossing it up if you didn’t know 100 per cent because then you are just going to put yourself in a worse situation.”

Field goals to be challenged

An obvious exception is during extra time if the opposition has kicked a field goal to give them a golden-point victory.

Teams do not receive an extra challenge during extra time but are almost certain to use it if they still have one remaining to keep alive their hopes of winning.

However, the captain’s challenge can only be used after a field goal to check whether defenders were obstructed.

Reynolds said teams would want to make sure they had a challenge available late in matches when it could have a greater impact on the result.

“There is no plan, just get out there and do what you feel but obviously don’t use it up too early,” Reynolds said. “If we think it is blatant and we think we can overturn it then sure but later on in the match if we feel like we can get it we will have a crack.”

NRL head of football Graham Annesley last week sent a warning to clubs about breaches at scrums to prevent the attacking team taking advantage of the new rule enabling the captain to decide where on the field it should be packed.

How the captain's challenge will work

The idea behind the rule was to give teams the option of moving the scrum to the middle of the field which should ensure more creative play but Annesley said some teams were using illegal tactics to negate any advantage for the attacking side.

He raised the possibility of re-introducing penalty goals for scrum infringements if the rule breaches continued during the season.

Friend said it would take some time at the start of the season for teams to get used to the rule changes.

“It is a bit of trial and error at the start of the year with the scrums,” Friend said. “We have done it against each other at training from different positions but I am sure there will be teams working on different things. It will be cool to watch a few games and see what trends are coming up.”

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.