Rugby League: Changes usher in new ball game

Rugby League

DAVE HADFIELD

At St Helens, Wigan and seven other professional rugby league grounds tonight, it will be a whole new ball game. The first tranche of games played under four new rules is bound to produce teething problems and Britain is undeniably being used as a guinea pig by the Super League in Australia.

The guinea pig might stagger around the laboratory for a while, but, provided it does not actually die, Super League on both sides of the globe will kick off under these rules in March.

Two of them carry fairly obvious benefits. Moving scrums 20 metres from touch opens up greater attacking opportunities and making the side that scores kick off to give the opposition possession promises to even up contests. "It is also in line with most other sports," says the League's director of referees' coaching, Greg McCallum. "That is significant when we come to promoting the game in America and Asia."

Wigan's coach, Graeme West, is understandably wary of a rule change that also seems aimed at bringing them back to the pack, but there will be a general welcome for both these moves.

Less easy to assess is the effect of the rule changes at the play-the- ball, where striking for the ball by the side not in possession will be outlawed and the tackled player will not be allowed to tap the ball forward to himself, even if there is no marker in position. It will clean up a traditional problem area, but will it leave something that still looks like rugby league?

Steve Simms, whose badly injury-weakened Halifax side are at Wigan tonight, will still base his strategy around the possibility of the tackled player regaining possession, even if he has to play the ball backwards, turn around, pick it up and then run upfield. "And we haven't struck for the ball for a while, because it's a waste of time for the amount you get back."

One fear, particularly in the lower divisions, is that a game already too quick for many of its participants could get quicker still. Ian Lucas, who will coach Second Division Leigh under the new rules for the first time against Doncaster tonight, believes the effect could be the opposite. "There is no point in the tackled player springing to his feet if he can't take advantage of there being no marker," he says.

The full implications will not be clear until games have been played under the new rules. "We will know by the end of next week whether they are going to work," McCallum says.

Waiting in the wings are three other rules the Australians would have liked us to try - allowing ball-stealing in one-to-one situations, time off for goal kicks and unlimited substitutions. The latter two would take the game much too far in the direction of American football for almost anyone in Britain's comfort.

The changes which arrive tonight will make it all look quite unfamiliar enough, but, as Simms says: "At least we all get the ball back when Wigan score."

Great Britain's third Super League international against Australia on 20 October could be under threat, following New Zealand's insistence that they have been guaranteed a match against Australia on the same day.

Hull Kingston Rovers have signed two World Cup players from Papua New Guinea: the centre, John Okul, 23, and the stand-off, Stanley Gine, 22.

Widnes are considering a formal complaint over Graeme West's accusation that they narrowed their pitch for last Saturday's Regal Trophy tie against Wigan.

The first representative match between the Civil Service and the RAF will take place at the Civil Service Sports Ground in Chiswick this afternoon.

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