League: Nines innovate to remove 'easy' tries

By Paul Lewis

Kiwis half Shaun Johnson could be one of the top players and try-scorers in the Nines. Photo / Getty Images
Kiwis half Shaun Johnson could be one of the top players and try-scorers in the Nines. Photo / Getty Images

Rugby league will introduce an exciting new rule for the Auckland Nines in February - a try "bonus zone" which looks likely to change the face of the short version of the game.

This is expected to be one of the innovative rule changes aimed at the Dick Smith NRL Nines and which are due to be announced this week.

Other changes to make the tournament fast and exciting are planned-but the bonus zone might be the most significant. It will be a marked area which runs under the goal posts from the goal line to the dead ball line.

Any player scoring a try in the zone will earn five points for his team - not the usual four. If the ball is touched down for a try outside the zone, the normal four points will apply.

When coupled with two points for a conversion, the bonus zone introduces a seven-point try into rugby league for the first time. However, this does not appear to be change for the sake of change.

The NRL already has a reputation for innovative rule changes and the bonus try zone seems likely to extend that.

The theory behind it is aimed at attack, defence and giving teams the ability to play come-from-behind football. On attack, it will:

• Reward teams for attaining the game's most desired score - a try between the posts is currently worth no more than a try in the corner although it does make the two-point conversion almost certain.

• Encourage teams to plot moves and plays designed specifically to score between the posts.

• Encourage players, once over the goal line, to beat defenders to get to the zone and the extra point.

On defence, it will:

• Make it doubly important for defendersto shadow a player who is going to score - to force him to touch down wide of the bonus
zone.

Require new preventive structures to counteract set moves for tries under the posts.

Make defenders alert to a player, already over the goal line, who might try to head to the bonus zone and who might thus still be tackled to prevent the score.

Defensive protection of the zone could lead to a team saving three points if their opponents score against them - by restricting the try to four points and forcing the touchdown wide enough so the kick is missed.

The new move will also likely end the "jogging" try - where a player who has made an intercept or has otherwise run clear of the defence strolls to the line, with defenders also conserving energy as they know the try will be scored. However, with an extra point available for a touchdown in the right part of the goal, defenders will have an incentive to chase and shepherd the try-scorer away.

The new rule will also give hope to teams that are behind on the score sheet. With the bonus try zone, being behind by six or 12 points does not mean the trailing side have to score twice or three times respectively.

If they can score between the posts, the seven-point try will mean trailing teams can quickly overhaul the opposition.

NRL general manager of football operations Nathan McGuirk would not comment on rule changes for the Nines until the announcement this week but said any changes being contemplated were only for the Nines - and not for the 13-man, long form version of the game. Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens was among the current and past coaches, referees and players consulted about rules changes for the Nines.

All 16 NRL teams will compete in the two-day competition, with many top NRL players on view - as opposed to many rugby sevens tournaments where players are lesser known. Tournament rules stipulate at least 12 of each club's top 25 salary-capped players as well as one top-five player must take part.

Robbie Farah, Sam Thaiday, Todd Carney, Anthony Watmough and Paul Gallen have already indicated they will be coming. The Nines are also expected to be closer to 13-man league in that many forwards are expected to take part instead of backs co-opted into forwards' roles. That means bigger players, and the thrills and spills they bring, are not excluded for the sake of mobility.

The teams have been split into four equal groups where they will each play one another in the group stage. The top two teams from each group will move on to the quarter-finals, where the winners from those eight games will play in a knockout format through to the grand final.

Meanwhile, the event continues to forge new marks as the biggest rugby league event to be held in this country. With the biggest event previously realising about $1 million in ticket sales, the Nines have already attracted $2.6m in sales. Some 10,000 visitors from outside Auckland have bought tickets already.

Auckland Council's events arm ATEED has committed at least $9m sponsorship, possibly swelling to $12m if the tournament hits revenue generation and visitor nights targets. The event is expected to generate $2.8 million in additional GDP for the city and 32,800 visitor nights in its first year, rising to $6.8 million GDP and 43,000 visitor nights by the final year of the five-year contract.

Nines bonus

Prize money: $2.6 million

Winners: $600,000

Group A: Warriors, Raiders, Sea Eagles, Cowboys

Group B: Roosters, Eels, Broncos, Bulldogs

Group C: Sharks, Knights, Tigers, Titans

Group D: Storm, Panthers, Rabbitohs, Dragons

- Herald on Sunday

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