Though the competition itself might be battling for exposure, the variations to the Laws of Rugby, and the little tweaks made to how certain Laws are interpreted by referees has certainly had the desired effect on the rugby being played in the National Rugby Championship.
The biggest change has been the reduction of penalty and drop goals, from three points to two points, and the increase in the value of conversions, from two points up to three.
The effect has been profound. As at the end of Round 4, only nine penalty goals had been attempted in 16 matches, as teams universally prefer to kick for touch when receiving penalties in the opposition half.
And with converted tries being worth eight points, the ball is certainly in play a lot more, as teams look to score tries where previously they might have taken the safety-first option of the penalty goal.
Again, after four rounds, 141 tries had been scored across the 16 games, an average of almost nine tries per match. The 16 matches are averaging a shade over 61 points scored per match, so if that’s your measure for entertaining rugby, it’s well and truly being provided.
In context, Super Rugby matches this year averaged around 48 points and less than five tries per game.
New Zealand’s ITM Cup, and South Africa’s Currie Cup average around 55 and 53 points per game, respectively, but when recalculated for the change in points for goal-kicking, the NRC is very much on par with both competitions.
But for all the emphasis on try-scoring and open play, the surprising effect has been that the scrum and lineout set pieces have become an even more important aspect of the game, as teams look to capitalise on the work of their forwards before unleashing the flashy backs.
Scrums also have to packed within 30 seconds, too, meaning the forwards can’t amble to the mark anymore and their scrummaging technique has to be correct when the get there.
Poor scrummaging teams have already been found out, with a number of penalty tries awarded, and more than a few props spending time in the sin bin. Teams with good scrums are starting to pick off tight heads, as well as pushover tries with and against the feed.
The variation where a crooked lineout throw is not pulled out unless contested in the air has actually led to more contests from the defending team, which in turn has put more pressure on the accuracy of the throw.
NRC critics have been very quick to denounce this competition, and particularly the law variations, with suggestions that the game will serve no purpose in readying players for Super Rugby level and beyond.
But that’s simply not true, and already it’s apparent that the teams with the best balance of forward dominance and attacking strike power are the front-runners in the competition.