High and Mighty

The new high tackle law continues to be debated at length on both social media, the press and on TV.

The main arguments that I’ve seen that are against the ruling seem to be turning the game into a powder puff affair or encouraging ‘diving’.

For me the  most sensible view on what is likely to happen and why the new law is important was expounded by Lawrence Dallaglio in the Sunday Times on January 1st –

January 3, 2017. It may not share the same symbolism as August 27, 1995 — the day rugby formally ushered in professionalism. But nobody should doubt its significance. This is the date from which referees must enforce World Rugby’s zero tolerance policy on redefining the illegal (high) tackle. It will have serious and immediate consequences for all levels of the game.

The sport has a problem with concussion. It is not surprising given the entry point of the tackle has steadily crept up inch by inch in the last few years. On television, parents see repeated blows to George North’s head and wonder how he can be allowed to carry on with his career, never mind with the match he is playing. On Sunday mornings, they see games being stopped because a child, sometimes their own, has to be treated for a head injury. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it and it is not good for rugby’s future.

The relevant clause, as issued by World Rugby, for which it decrees that a yellow card is now the minimum punishment, reads: “A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game if in making contact, the player knew or should have known there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway. This sanction applies even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. This type of contact also applies to grabbing and rolling or twisting around the head/neck area even if the contact starts below the line of the shoulders.”

If anything, in Aviva Premiership rugby we have seen an unofficial imposition of this edict in the past month. Where once referees would have waved on play after a 50/50 challenge, they have been blowing for a penalty. Where once they would have stopped at a penalty, they have been showing a yellow card. Where once they might have deemed a yellow sufficient, they have … well, just ask Dylan Hartley.

Eleven red cards have been shown through four rounds of European rugby competition in 2016/17. There were eight for the whole of last season. In round four alone, the weekend before Christmas, there were 29 yellows and six reds in 20 matches.

No one wants games ruined by players being dismissed. I sympathise to a degree with many ex-players —Matt Dawson (“How long will our game survive? Tackling is being phased out”) and Nick Easter (“The game needs to get a grip! Rugby is disappearing at rapid rate!”) — tweeting their disapproval. Yet the game will not survive or stay out of the courtroom if officials do not find a response to the shuddering physicality that defines modern rugby and the long-term risk it could pose to a player’s brain.

The advent of professionalism heralded an increase in the average player’s bulk, speed and overall fitness. That, coupled with the return of various rugby league stars to the
15-man code and the arrival of league coaches as defence and attack gurus, helped to create the cult of the “hit”.

When confronted by a defender, ball-carriers were expected to try to smash through the tackle. The aim was to get over the gainline and, with any luck, draw in another man from the defensive line. If the tackler could not smash back his opponent he could at least smother the ball to stop quick ball, or dislodge it to generate turnover ball. From here, the offload — the ability to take out one or two defenders then slip the ball out of the tackle to send a teammate through a hole in defence — became and still is the “moneyball”.

The result was that the key contact area was now between the waist and shoulder, and whenever a tackler aims for the chest or higher, the margin of error inevitably brings the head into play. The likelihood of head injuries has been accentuated by the tendency of
ball-carriers to run with their heads parallel to the ground as they go into the tackle.

The most significant part of World Rugby’s new interpretation of reckless contact is that it is now all about the outcome rather than any intent (or lack of) on the part of the tackler. This is what has frustrated many. Wasps’ Kurtley Beale, for example, received a yellow card last month for a high tackle on Niyi Adeolokun of Connacht. Look at the footage and you can see Adeolokun was on a downward trajectory and there was no great malice on Beale’s part. Or take Elliot Daly’s dismissal in November against Argentina for taking out Leonardo Senatore in the air. On another day, the Puma could have landed on his backside and Daly would have been off for 10 minutes at worse. That he fell one way rather than the other was purely down to luck.

I understand those who object to such inconsistency or point out that slo-mo replays distort the gravity of a challenge. But, because of the cloud concussion has brought over the game, there has to be an onus on the player not to put himself in a position where luck comes into the equation. In other words, a player has a duty of care to act responsibly towards his/her fellow player.

Beale should not have stuck out a flying arm. Daly should have been more adept in his challenge. In 2011, there was an outcry when Sam Warburton was sent off during Wales’ World Cup semi-final against France for a dangerous tackle. Does anyone look back now and think that referee Alain Rolland got that wrong?

The problem, of course, is that this new interpretation is coming in mid-season. We may see matches in which sides finish with 13 men each. We will need players, coaches, referees, fans and the media to show patience and understanding and think long-term. Will there be
play-acting? Possibly, but the referee can access immediate replays. Anyone engaging in histrionics and gamesmanship will be exposed straight away.

We applaud those who think on their feet. The benefits are that we may see a game which is safer and even more entertaining. How many times have we talked ourselves down for our propensity to bash through defensive walls rather than penetrating them with sleight of hand, well-timed runs and cute angles?

We have a fantastic crop of footballers in the British Isles. They can flourish in the new culture. The pass before, during and out of the tackle will once again become the new offload. Patience is the key. Halfway through the season the law-makers are trying to create a cultural shift in the tackle law to prevent anyone from losing their heads. Let’s not lose our heads in getting there.

More important than the ‘making it a nancy game’ is just how the law will be applied – Rugby Tonight raised some interesting concerns –

http://sport.bt.com/sport-hurts/rugby-tonight-demo-law-changes-91364130344952

Time will tell

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