Quick change: New rules preventing a third tackler from targeting the ball carrier?s legs led to more one- and two-man tackles in the season opener ? benefitting big, skilful forwards such as Sam Burgess.

Quick change: New rules preventing a third tackler from targeting the ball carrier's legs led to more one- and two-man tackles in the season opener ? benefitting big, skilful forwards such as Sam Burgess. Photo: Getty Images

On March 17 last year I wrote in this column:

''In recent years, attacking potency has been suffocated under a wall of defenders, wrestling the life out of the game. If we could just somehow ban this ridiculous third and fourth defender coming in at the legs of the tackled player, the game would loosen up.''

The faster pace of the game took its toll on the Roosters in the second half, with the Rabbitohs able to exploit gaps when they opened up and Greg Inglis there to convert the pressure into points.

The faster pace of the game took its toll on the Roosters in the second half, with the Rabbitohs able to exploit gaps when they opened up. Photo: Getty Images

 

Let's spend less time with the wrestling coaches. More time with the football coaches. Let's play some football.

This could well be the shift in mindset taking place in a number of coaches meetings throughout the NRL as a result of new tackle rules which have been introduced for the 2014 season.

The third and fourth defender attacking the legs of a ball carrier as he stands in the tackle is now being heavily scrutinised and penalised. So it should be too. It was a dangerous practice, putting players at increased risk of injury. Certainly more risk than a shoulder charge - but that's another story - we will take up that argument another time.

As a result of stopping the third defender attacking the legs, we are already seeing a greater number of one-man and two-man tackles as against the three- and four-man tackles of previous seasons. I am not a statistics man. I go more by what I see with my own eyes. But I will be surprised if the stats don't confirm my thoughts. The referee is also calling ''held'' a little sooner in the tackle whilst the big man with the ball-in-hand is still standing.

These are indeed significant changes and, as the next few weeks unfold, I believe coaches will start to take advantage of the new rule and the much quicker play-the-ball speeds it will undoubtedly produce.

South Sydney appeared ahead of the game in this regard on Thursday night. The Roosters built their 2013 premiership success on being the best defensive team I have seen for almost a decade. To see them struggling to contain the rampaging Rabbitohs over the latter stages of the contest due to their fatigue caused by the increased speed of the game will have alarm bells ringing in a few team meetings this week.

I haven't coached a football team for a very long time, so I may be way out of touch here. However, from what I have seen in the opening games, I believe teams will be totally reassessing their attacking and defensive techniques over the coming weeks.

Having said that, this time last year in this column I expressed my hope for a change in the style of football being played in the NRL.

I wrote:

''I get the feeling we could be on the verge of another shift in the style of rugby league being played by a number of teams in the NRL competition … every team is currently playing with the same strategy, structures and plays as everyone else.''

Alas, the change I was searching for didn't really eventuate. Over the past few seasons, rugby league at the top level had become a game dominated by defensive techniques. The speed of the play-the-ball had become the major focus of the contest. Defenders were clearly winning that battle.

Players had become well skilled in the art of ''catching'' rather than ''tackling'' the big man as he charged the ball forward. One defender locks up the ball, a second defender latches on at the same time and they quickly set about restraining the upper body of their opponent. Once the ball is secure, a third defender would then attack the lower half of the body, squeezing his legs together, so no more forward motion was possible. The man with the ball would now have no leverage, no power and no control. He would be totally disabled.

The men who had a grip of the top half of his body would then really go to work with their wrestling techniques. They get their heads in nice and tight under the ball carrier's chin, grip and squeeze his triceps or forearms, lock in his elbows, twist the man's torso and spin him to have his back facing the ground, and then as the referee was calling ''held'' they would slowly lower their man to the ground to buy a few more seconds for their teammates to reset the defensive line. It was like watching something on the Discovery Channel. How a predator disables his prey.

They were good at it, too. All credit to those who worked so hard to become so good at what they do. However, it was stifling the game. Defensive lines were always set, ready and prepared to attack the ball runners. There was little respite or room to move for the game's better attacking players.

As a result of defensive dominance, attacking football had been reduced to simple formations, power running and limited creativity. The overuse of the decoy runner and the ad infinitum use of the one basic style of attacking play meant that once you had seen one team play, you had pretty much seen them all.

The attacking set of six had been reduced to hit up, hit up, then shift to one side with decoy runner at the third-last defender to try and create a three-on-two advantage down the edges. Hit it up again before a shift to the other side with the same decoy running pattern. On tackle five we go for the cross-field bomb to the leaping winger. Repeat as often as possible.

Now that's a very simplistic description of the game being played. Obviously some teams and some individuals had a little more to offer, but basically this has been the mould from which all attacking sets had been cast.

No one seemed to be willing to step outside the square and play the game a little differently. I concede though, that the modern-day coaches are brilliant at what they do and if this is what they feel is the best way to play football, I'm certainly not going to second guess them.

My major fear was that this style of football was filtering down into junior football and affecting development of young players.

I wrote:

''I see a lot of schoolboy teams and junior rep teams coached as if they are NRL teams. Kids are typecast in a specific role and a specific zone from such a young age these days that I don't believe they are getting a rounded education in the game. Our junior-league football does not encourage the development of playmakers or the necessary grounding in simple skills such as catching, passing, kicking, footwork, support play and so on. I think a lot of talented kids are falling through the cracks because they are obliterated by the obsession with size and power that junior league football has favoured.''

 

I am hoping the increased speed of play will bring the smaller players back into the contest. I see opportunities for all players in all positions to be more creative and spontaneous. A word of warning though - in the past when we've manufactured an increase in the speed of the play-the-ball, teams have generally resorted to a boring theme of increased dummy-half running. I hope our game doesn't again deteriorate to such mind-numbing tactics.

I also think that if we get the desired result of more one-man and two-man tackles, then these defenders should be given some latitude to finish their work and get themselves is reasonable position to defend the next play if they are good enough to do so. It is ridiculous to suggest they should have to release and roll away from the tackle, leaving a free run for the dummy half.

The game always needs to have balance and be a fair contest between attack and defence. History has shown we tend to over-compensate at times when introducing new interpretations.

Hasten slowly Mr Referee!