English star performers, bold rule changes and artificial crowd effects – Australia’s NRL has burst back onto screens around the world as one of the first elite competitions back in action.
Former Wigan half-back George Williams produced one of the performances of last weekend’s return for high-flying Canberra, alongside fellow countrymen Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead.
The decision to import fake fan noises was met with a largely positive response, along with a rule that scraps penalties for tackle infringements, and instead resets the tackle count. And with the action being shown in 70 countries across the globe – including all eight on Sky Sports – rugby league Down Under has never been more widely watched.
Sky’s former Great Britain international Phil Clarke – who played for Sydney Roosters himself – says the changes have improved to the sport’s spectacle.
Clarke said: “I watched the behind closed doors games before the lockdown and didn’t like the silence, and the crowd effects added to the coverage. They have four different sound engineers working to make sure different noises are added depending on whether teams are attacking or defending and I thought that worked well.
“The rule change seemed to make the game faster and flow better. Rugby league needs a natural flow to it, so that fatigue becomes an important element and it’s not just about power. The new ‘six again’ rule allows the team at fault to be penalised without interrupting that flow.
“I noticed that Eddie Jones commented on it and used it as an example that World Rugby should look at when making rule changes to make rugby union faster and a better spectacle. He loves his rugby league and he’s been saying in rugby union circles that it’s been a success.
“The other important factor is that if the NRL has been criticised for anything in the past it’s for being a bit too structured. The new rule seems to encourage a greater spontaneity and that’s good for the game.”
Clarke sees the Roosters, Canberra and table-topping Parramatta as the most likely champions in the scaled-down 2020 season, which now concludes at the end of October.
He continued: “Canberra are one of the favourites to win it and you could call them ‘Little Britain’ now. Ricky Stuart absolutely loves his British players, he’s got a lot of time and respect for them. George Williams was outstanding last week and he’s one to look out for again.
“I love the Roosters with them being my former club – the people at the club were and are great friends. It would be amazing if they could win it three years in a row.
“But perhaps the most exciting team at the moment is Parramatta Eels. Many people in this country who started watching rugby league in the 1980s had them as their favourite sides, because they had the likes of Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling and Eric Grothe.
“Now after what seems like years of underperforming they look back to their best – they produce a lot of offloads and are really good to watch.”
Despite his admiration for those three sides, Clarke says any newcomers to the sport should look to New Zealand Warriors, who committed to moving their entire squad to Australia to help restart the competition.
Clarke added: “We’ve heard about football teams here not watching to play at neutral venues so it’s a fascinating story of sacrifice. How many people would move away from their home and family for several months to do their job?
“I know a lot of soldiers, NHS and caseworkers have been making what are greater sacrifices, but from a sporting perspective the Warriors have shown they’re prepared to roll their sleeves up.
“They might not win the competition this year but New Zealand Warriors certainly deserve our respect.”
English connection: Lancashire-born youngster Herbie Farnworth has broken into the first team.
One to Watch: Giant 20-year-old prop Payne Haas has a big future ahead of him.
English connection: The club's 'Fab Five' of John Batemen, George Williams, Elliott Whitehead, Ryan Sutton and Josh Hodgson.
One to Watch: George Williams was on fire in last week's impressive win at Melbourne.
English connection: St Helens prop Luke Thompson heads there in 2021 and the Bulldogs want him now.
One to Watch: Half-back Kieran Foran has a lot on his shoulders returning from injury.
English connection: Tommy Bishop led the Sharks to their first Grand Final in 1973.
One to Watch: Former Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson is a magician on his day.
Gold Coast Titans
English connection: Richie Mathers, Dan Sarginson and Kallum Watkins all turned out for the Titans.
One to Watch: Forward Jai Arrow often stands tall in a struggling team.
Manly Sea Eagles
English connection: Prop Kevin Ward played a key role in the 1987 Grand Final win.
One to Watch: Full-back Tom Trbojevic is setting the competition alight at present.
English connection: Warrington playmaker Gareth Widdop built his career at the Storm.
One to Watch: Hooker Cameron Smith is an all-time rugby league great.
English connection: Malcolm Reilly coached the Knights to Grand Final success in 1997.
One to Watch: Youngster Bradman Best is catching the eye at centre.
New Zealand Warriors
English connection: Andy Platt and Denis Betts were members of the Warriors’ first squad in 1995.
One to Watch: International Player of the Year Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is an excitement machine.
North Queensland Cowboys
English connection: Well travelled hooker Scott Moore played made six appearances for the Cowboys in 2013.
One to Watch: Electric Valentine Holmes is back in league after a brief flirtation with the NFL.
English connection: Current Workington coach Chris Thorman played 11 times for the Eels in 2004.
One to Watch: Fijian winger Maika Sivo is unstoppable on his day.
English connection: Zak Hardaker had a brief spell with the Panthers in 2016.
One to Watch: Fijian back rower Viliame Kikau is a destructive runner out wide.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
English connection: All four Burgess brothers famously played together there – only Tom remains.
One to Watch: Aussie international Damien Cook is a non-stop live-wire from hooker.
St George Illawarra Dragons
English connection: Stalwart James Graham is still leading the Dragons from the front.
One to Watch: Hooker Cameron McInnes has an unbelievably high work rate.
English connection: England and ex-Leeds winger Ryan Hall is in the squad.
One to Watch: Many believe full-back James Tedesco is the best player in the world.
English connection: Gareth Ellis became a local hero during four stellar seasons with the Tigers.
One to Watch: Brilliant veteran Benji Marshall still has all his old tricks up his sleeve.
This weekend’s NRL action
All matches simultaneously on Sky Sports Mix, Sky Sports Arena and Sky Sports Main Event.
THURSDAY: Brisbane Broncos v Sydney Roosters (10.50am)
FRIDAY: Penrith Panthers v New Zealand Warriors (9am), Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs (10.55am)
SATURDAY: Parramatta Eels v Manly Sea Eagles (8.30am), North Queensland Cowboys v Cronulla Sharks (10.35am)
SUNDAY: Canberra Raiders v Newcastle Knights (7am), Gold Coast Titans v Wests Tigers (9.25am)
MONDAY: Canterbury Bulldogs v St George-Illawarra Dragons (7.05am)
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