The Eye Test’s Most Adequate of 2020 – The rule change affecting time in play that’s rarely talked about

This article was originally posted as part of NRL Round 14 notes and trends, August 18, 2020.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the past few rounds is that the average time of ball in play has dropped slightly to the pre Rugby League 2.0 levels. This comes after a decent increase earlier in the season once the rules were changed. Focusing just on time in possession, the last NRL three rounds haven’t had more than 57 minutes of ball in play, the three lowest rounds this season and both before V’Landysball was introduced in Round 3.

This led me to investigating why, and I put together the below chart plotting time in possession (sourced from NRL.com) against points scored per game. The blue line represents average time in possession for the first 14 rounds of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and the yellow bars represent the average points scored per game in each round (by both teams).  There’s a reference line on these bar charts as well to show the average for 2019 and 2020. For points its about the same – 38.8 in 2019 and 39.9 in 2020.

Initially I thought that the amount of points scored was reducing the time in possession, with more tries and conversion increasing the amount of time the ball was doing nothing. But if you look at the above chart, it’s not really apparent – Rounds 8 and 11 had average game scores below 40 points, but time in possession above 62 minutes, significantly higher than other rounds this season.

I should note at this point I’ve filtered out any golden point games to normalise minutes per game. A great example of why is Round 3 2020, where the average goes from 58.81 to 61.46 if you include the Panthers v Knights drawn match which had a whopping 80 minutes of time in possession. Another note is that Round 12 2019 had only four games played due to State of Origin, which is why it looks like an outlier.

It’s not due to tries either, see below for the chart that shows why. Round 7 2020 had 8.3 tries and nearly 58 minutes of time in possession, while Round 9 this year had 6.7 tries but 62.7 minutes of possession. Again, this makes sense with the previous chart as points are a factor of tries scored.

My next thought was maybe there are fewer penalty goals? There are fewer penalties being called, so it makes sense that there were fewer penalty goal attempts this season. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing is another discussion, especially in those instances where a team is down 2 inside the opponents 20m zone and gets a set restart. But that’s another matter for another time. Below is penalties awarded plotted against time in possession.

This led me to look at penalty goal attempts against time in possession. The data checks out – 1.6 attempted penalty goals last year against 1.1 in 2020. And they’re being taken at a lower rate too. In 2019 penalty goal attempts comprised nearly 20% of all shots at goal. In 2020, that number has dropped to just 13.6%. So that’s the likely reason for the increase in time in possession, right? Less time standing around waiting for a kick at goal.

Hang on, let’s look at something a bit closer on that chart. Round 1 and 2 had time in possession of 58 and a half minutes and an even 57 minutes, respectively. That’s more time in possession than the last three rounds under one referee and with set restarts. There’s actually been six rounds since Round with less time in possession than Round 1.

Yet Round 1 and 2 had over 2 penalty attempts per game, far higher than the rest of 2020 and more than most rounds last year to the same point. How did those two rounds still have high time of ball in play yet more penalty goal attempts?

Maybe the time elapsed during a penalty goals is counted as time in possession? If that were the case, that wouldn’t explain Round 12 having 56.6 minutes in play with 1.4 penalty goal attempts per game, while Round 8 had almost 63 minutes in play with just 0.6 penalty goal attempts per game.

Maybe the game is just faster? In this “faster pace” era, everything is up, and more stuff is being done. So far this season we’ve seen an increase in time that the ball is in play. There’s an increase in runs and play the balls as well. Although not an increase in play the ball speed.

But we do know from the first chart that the ball is in play more this season by about 8% compared to 2019 for the first 14 rounds. Runs are up nearly 10% compared to the same point in 2019. Passes are up 5%, line breaks are up 7% and tries are up 10% Everything is up! More stuff is good!

Kicks are also up 7.5% year on year, with long kicks up 17% and attacking kicks are up 7%. More stuff! But hang on – weighted kicks are down 20%. That’s strange. Forced dropouts are down 2.1%. Kicks dead are down 3%. Why would those kicks be down year on year if everything else, including other types of kicks, has increased?

The fact there’s not a corresponding increase in weighted kicks, kicks dead and dropouts, and a higher increase in attacking kicks than other statistics indicates something has changed. You might be slowly getting at where I’m leading with this and why its taken over 700 words.

To save you anymore of this shaggy dog story, here’s my crackpot theory – teams have gotten more efficient and accurate at aiming their attacking kicks just outside the goal area to avoid a seven tackle set. The rule change which came into effect in Round 1 that gives airborne attacking players the same level of protection as airborne defensive players is surely a driver for this, as Daniel Tupou was showing before succumbing to injury.

This explains the drop in weighted kicks but the large increase in attacking kicks. Fewer kicks reaching the in-goal area leads to fewer dropouts which can take up to 45 seconds each. By aiming them a bit shorter than the try line, at worst a team will give up possession less than 10 metres out or a scrum at the same point. This is a much better result than a seven-tackle set from the 20-metre line.

Why does this make such a difference in time in possession? A drop out usually takes 40-45 seconds off the clock, because the NRL has a rule saying you can take that long (another rule change with unintended consequences). In the first two rounds this season, there were 20 fewer forced dropouts than the first two rounds last season than in 2019. If you are generous and say each one takes 40 seconds, there’s 920 seconds saved across two games. Divide by 60 to get minutes and then divide again by the eight games per round and you get an extra 57 seconds saved on average per round purely from fewer dropouts.

This would account for some of the time in play change for Rounds 1 and 2 this year compared with last year. It also explains why Round 3 had only a slightly higher time in possession than Rounds 1 and 2 – the time savings from reduced penalties was cancelled out by having over five dropouts per game that round. The chart for average dropouts against time in possession is below.

These first two rounds this season serve as my exhibit A, albeit with a small sample size. There is similar average time in possession to post Round 3 (excluding the golden point draw), but there were still two referees and no set restarts. A comparable number of penalties were awarded as previous seasons yet more penalty goals attempted. The key is fewer dropouts in Rounds 1 and 2 compared to 2019, and below the average for 2020.

Need more proof that a reduction in forced dropouts might be part of the increase in the time of possession? Exhibit B – the last three rounds have had the three lowest time in possession averages this season, all under 57 minutes as noted in the first paragraph. In the last two of those rounds (13 and 14, factoring out Round 12 due to fewer games), dropouts are up 31% year on year and weighted kicks up 11%. As opposed to down 2% and 20% for the season so far. Goal attempts were down 3% over these rounds too, ruling that out as a cause as well. Why the change in kicking? Teams may be finding that their tactic of launching more bombs aimed outside the try line hasn’t been as successful and are adapting. Whatever the cause, there’s another link between time in possession and dropouts taken.

I’m not denying that there is an increase in time in possession due to the Round 3 rule changes, the reduction in penalties also plays a part. There’s an average of three fewer penalties per game this season, and with the NRL has claimed there were five penalties per game in the play the ball last season and each one costs about 22 seconds of play. If you multiple those 3 fewer penalties by 22 seconds, there’s another minute with the ball in play. Add in fewer penalty goals and there’s a bit more time gained. Yet there’s also a similar component of time being saved from fewer line dropouts.

The increase in time on possession hasn’t isn’t just a result of rule changes, but a larger and more complicated combination of change in playing style to suit for these rule changes. The consistent attribution of faster “pace” and more “stuff” being done given solely to set restarts and one referee is proving to be a false equivalence, but one that will get a lot more airtime to boost agendas. If you really wanted to speed up the game, you’d halve the clock on dropouts.

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