Coaches have been told that referees have been instructed to abandon last year’s approach of adjudicating every game the same. They have been told to react to what they see. It means trivial breaches will be ignored and the ball will move.
If so, it will suit some NRL teams more than others. The ad-lib teams – those without organising halfbacks and an abundance of lithe forwards – could make an early climb up the ferris wheel.
Teams with structured play and giant forwards will initially struggle.
It’s good news for Queensland because their three clubs – Cowboys, Broncos and Titans – have instinctive halves. It’s even better news for Brisbane, because they boast a youthful pack.
The Cowboys’ main playmaker, Michael Morgan, prefers a non structured game, as does the Titan’s Ash Taylor. The Broncos’ enigmatic Anthony Milford can tear a tired defence apart, especially if referees don’t punish surrender tackles.
The great danger of Annesley’s mini-revolution is the return of this “bumper bar” tackle, where the ball-carrier basically dives at the feet of the defence in order to execute a very fast play-the-ball. Most referees have trouble detecting it and, if they are wedded to a mentality of “opening up the game”, tries will come cheaply.
When Wayne Bennett was coach of the Broncos during the Super League era, he conned his fellow coaches in the rebel league to cut down the contact in the ruck, meaning his Brisbane team, aided by two giant wingers, travelled the length of the field in six tackles.
An absence of wrestle will suit the Eels, who don’t like a down-and-dirty game, preferring a non-physical game of touch.
The Panthers, their weekend opponents in round one, are led, spiritually, by five eighth James Maloney who has been trying to play ad-lib football for years, despite winning premierships at the Roosters and Sharks under coaches who like to impose more structure.
This read-and-react style, a form of “release-the-(grey)hounds” attack, won’t suit the teams with big men who will be moved about.
State of Origin football is the exemplar of this style and its minimum stoppages are consistent with Annesley’s aim of keeping the penalty count down.
NRL teams with big and ageing forwards, such as the Sharks, will struggle, although the new buy Shaun Johnson is a wildcard.
The Bulldogs, with a veteran halfback in Kieran Foran and less mobile forwards, will not like this open style.
How long before coaches, witnessing the downward move of their teams on the ferris wheel, start testing the referee with slow-down tactics in the ruck?
The Warriors also prefer a game with frequent offloads, winning games when the passes stick and losing when they don’t. They reached two grand finals with this style but were closed down by premiers with more control.
Even the great Broncos teams of 1992-93, with ad-lib players, still had a structure on which to depend when in trouble.
It follows that teams who can play with both structure and ad lib will prevail from about the time the State of Origin series begins.
The Roosters, Dragons, Rabbitohs and Storm can play either way. Significantly, they have yin-and-yang halves pairings. The Roosters’ Cooper Cronk schemes two or three tackles in advance, while his fiv- eighth, Luke Keary, initially an instinctive player, showed in the grand final he can play both ways.
The Dragons’ Gareth Widdop is educated to structure, while his half, Ben Hunt is not. Ditto, Souths Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker.
The Storm’s Brodie Croft is a work in progress but five-eighth Cameron Munster thrives on broken field play.
The Roosters are likely to sit atop the ferris wheel at the end of a season which, for most, will be a fun-filled ride, until Origin arrives and it becomes the only low penalty count game in the NRL amusement park.
Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.