This World Cup has been plagued with the issue of no arm tackles, high tackles, HIAs and referees getting dogs with abuse by people saying that they’re not consistent. I’ve been struggling to try to work out why there seems to be so many problems and after much deliberation, I’d like to offer the following points for people to consider.
If I go back to my own rugby playing days, when I was a young kid playing the game from the age of seven up through school, the tackle area was something we were taught by teachers and rugby coaches. Huge amounts of time were spent on this area with real emphasis on the safety element of the tackle for both tackler and the tackled player. We were taught to move our head to the side, try to keep it out of the way of the knees, wrap the arms around the knee or hip area and tackle the guy. The emphasis was always on getting low, dropping our body height and making the tackle with a view to getting the opposition player to the ground.
As I grew up through the game, that’s the way it was. The game turned professional in 1995, I went pro in 97 and one thing that became evident after a couple of seasons in the game, was that the great teams, the French, the New Zealanders, the South Africans – had worked out that if they could keep their arms free in the tackle area then they could offload the ball to a support player and keep the ball alive thereby nullifying the effect of the tackle. This was one of the things which made them so enjoyable to watch, their ability to offload in the contact area, keep the ball alive, and create facets of amazing play.
It meant for defending teams that you just ran out of players eventually because you’re just tackling, tackling, tackling all day long – they offload the ball, there was always a runner to pick it up and carry on and the continuity of the game would be there. Invariably, you would run out of tacklers, they would have the extra man and they would score the try.
So, with the advent of professionalism, people started to look at how to develop the tackle area and how it would be more effective to stop this continuity game. It seems to me that rugby looked to rugby league and decided, ‘right, what are they doing in rugby league?’
Rugby league is a very different game, it’s much more about boshing the ball up in the contact area and they don’t try to offload the ball as much. There are big hits but they always seem to be higher hits and their tackle technique is always around targeting the ball.
I certainly remember with Matt Williams coming in with Leinster, the emphasis came on targeting the ball with the idea that you would stop the continuity game or slow it down completely. In our tackle technique, we went from a technique where you were taught to tackle the guy just to get him to the ground to tackling the guy but also nullify the threat of them being able to offload the ball. So very quickly, we found that our other arm that wasn’t involved in the wrap of the tackle, it was now trying to reach and find where that ball was and stop it and stop those offloads.
Rugby union teams across the board then started to look at rugby league coaches and brought them in to do their defensive patterns. Over time that has evolved. If you look to the 2009 Grand Slam that Ireland won, in the period building up to that, probably for about two years, maybe a little bit longer, Ireland became renowned around the world for being incredible at holding players up in the tackle. You can’t do that unless you are in an upright position!
Slowly but surely over that 20 year period, in my opinion, we have coached players out of the tackle technique of getting down low, making the hits and driving players back. We’ve now evolved to a point where defensive lines are unbelievably well organised, they come in with massive pace and their thought process isn’t about just trying to stop the player in a tackle, it’s about stopping the ball entirely. They’re now going in high to try and hit the ball and the player at the same time and wrap up that ball and stop the progress of the team. This means that you’re getting 6’6″ guys who haven’t been taught how to dip and lower their body height, drive their shoulder in and wrap it around, this will inevitably lead to shoulders hitting heads.
I think we have overdeveloped rugby league defensive systems, it’s not that anyone has intentionally done this but it’s just evolved into something where the old-style tackle has been coached out of the game and the new style tackle has been coached in and this new style tackle is highly dangerous.
If you flip that on a little bit to the referees and you go, ‘the referees need to sort this out, there needs to consistency’. Yes, I agree with those statements but at the same time you have to have some sympathy for the referees here as well.
They’re as unsure as everybody else. They’re not deliberately going out to try and mess it up and miss incidents. Angus Gardner was whipped off the match and put on the sideline for the Samoa-Japan game. It was dressed up as ‘travel issues’ but the last thing he wants is basically getting dropped for one of the biggest matches in England-Argentina.
They’re out there to perform at their best as well. To help the referees in all of this, World Rugby need to look at the tackle and the way the tackle is being delivered to help the referees perform. I don’t believe for one minute that referees are not affected if they officiate badly. Knowing as many as I do, I can assure you it plays on their mind just as much as a player’s if they have a bad performance. It’s just that they are as confused as everybody else as to what’s high, what’s not high, was that with the shoulder, was it a straight arm, was there a wrap?
It’s too much for one man to look at on top of everything else he’s trying to look at in a game. That being said, there has been huge inconsistency in this World Cup but I think it’s totally down to confusion. They’re scratching their heads as much as everybody else.
World Rugby need to sit down and they need to analyse this.
If you go back a couple of years ago, the scrums became an absolute shambles. Every match was taken up with reset, after reset, after reset. World Rugby went off and did a two or three-year study and they interviewed different people, myself included, chatting about what ways the scrum might be improved.
Now they just lean in towards each other and there’s no pushing before the ball comes in at all. At the time, I remember coming in looking at it going, ‘they’re going to destroy the game, there’s no contest at the scrum.’ But that didn’t happen because very quickly, people got used to it. They evolved and adapted to the new system and the scrums then became something that weren’t constantly being reset or taking up to 10 minutes of playtime in a game with resetting and the bullshit that was going on in bad weather. In the end what I thought would destroy the game only enhanced it.
If World Rugby want to fix the HIA and concussion issue, the referee issue and the safety of the game – there has to be a directive that all tackling must be made from below the sternum and then they have to be absolutely ruthless.
Argentina went out of the World Cup, in my opinion, because of a red card that they picked up early in the game. I feel that Argentina were a team that could have beaten England with their full team and playing to the best of their ability. Once the red card was issued, that game was over as a contest. England were always going to win that match after that. Argentina’s World Cup chances were lost on a red card and that’s the harsh reality of it.
If World Rugby bring in directives to change the tackle law to below sternum tackles only, then very quickly coaches and players will adapt provided players are getting consistently sent off for illegal tackles. If teams are losing crucial matches whether it’s a Heineken Cup semi-final or whatever it might be, I can guarantee you that every single coach in the world will have to reel back and go ‘ right lads, we’ll just have to adapt, we’ve got to learn the new tackle technique’.
The players will very quickly learn that if I don’t and if I have bad tackle technique and I’m constantly getting yellow carded or red-carded because of my bad tackle technique, then I’m not going to get picked and I’m going to lose my career.
That’s the reality of it.
It will take time, it won’t happen overnight but it’s amazing how quickly players, coaches, teams and referees adapt to these new laws. All of a sudden, like the scrum, it doesn’t become that big of a deal anymore and the game moves on.
I do think this would bring back some more continuity in the game. At the moment we’re looking at big men running into brick walls. It’s very hard to see teams with that flair and style of rugby that we used to love with the offloading and passing of old.
You hardly ever see it anymore but the All Blacks still manage to do it to a degree but nothing like it used to be. When they do it now, it makes a highlight reel on Twitter!!