Gordon D’Arcy: Red cards inevitable until new tackle laws bed in
Zero tolerance on new law will have drawbacks but high tackle needs to be consigned to history
New Zealand’s Malakai Fekitoa tackles Simon Zebo of Ireland around the neck during the November international at the Aviva stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Nigel Owens made a call last weekend. It was an incorrect interpretation of the rules but he was decisive. It was instinctive, as Nigel trusted his experience and his feel for the game. He got it wrong on that occasion but not a single player or coach, in their right mind, would chew Owens out over the way he referees rugby matches.
Because Nigel refs what he sees. Rugby, in order to thrive, needs that sort of officiating.
When it comes to borderline high tackling that fundamental refereeing tool – understanding the game – may disappear for a period of time.
There is already teething problems as World Rugby seeks to eradicate actions that have become ingrained in the way so many players enter contact.
John Lacey has played professional rugby. The former Munster winger made an instant call to penalise Seanie O’Brien against Ulster on New Year’s Eve.
Louis Ludik carried into Seanie, who wrapped both arms but his right forearm glanced the ball and moved onto the dipping Ludik’s neck.
Seanie turned the South African, holding him up, but before Jamie Heaslip arrived to complete the now inappropriately named “choke”tackle Lacey had signalled for a penalty advantage to Ulster.
Following the letter of the new tackle laws – “if a player makes accidental contact with an opponent’s head, either directly or where the contact starts below the line of the shoulders” – a penalty must follow.
We may get used to Seanie’s bewildered response. It was the wrong call by Lacey but because he was following the new laws to the letter it has become the new norm and this is what has players worried about the game becoming too soft.
Any zero tolerance policy will have its drawbacks. Interpretation gets removed from rugby until everyone accepts that the high tackle needs to become a thing of the past.
This is World Rugby latest attempt to combat concussion. Plain and simple.
Referees struggled – badly – with the contact in the air rule for 18 months. They have a decent handle on it now but from Jared Payne’s sending off against Saracens in 2014 even to recent weeks, players have been red carded despite making a genuine attempt to catch the ball in the air. Jared never took his eyes off the ball so he could not have known that Alex Goode had arrived with a better timed jump.
This began the conversation that you need to know where the position of other players are relative to your own. Eyes on the ball was no longer an acceptable excuse.
The collision resulted in a heavy fall for Goode, which precipitated the red card, which had a huge impact on Ulster’s trophy-less season.
Regardless of the logical reasoning by then Ulster captain Johann Muller, nothing could change the mind of referee Jerome Garces. The correctness of the decision is open for debate but not the result of the red card.
Rules are rules when the instruction is zero tolerance. But with a bit of water under the bridge zero tolerance now takes a bit of circumstance into consideration.
Unfortunately, until the new approach to tackling – which is really a reversion to older methods of hitting below the shoulder line, and ensuring your contact does not finish higher up – can become part of the collective mindset we will see teams winning matches due to numerical advantages.
The stream of dismissals have already started – there has been 11 red cards in Champions Cup rugby this season, in comparison to a total of eight in 2015/16.
World Rugby did extensive research before this edict. Over 600 Head Injury Assessment incidents were reviewed from over 1500 games, with 76 per cent of HIA’s occurring in the tackle. The logic being to lower the body position of the tackler is to lower the number of concussions.
This is primarily about making rugby a safer sport and secondly about protecting the image of the game.
Sam Cane’s tackle on Robbie Henshaw or Malakai Fekitoa on Simon Zebo or Dylan Hartley’s swinging arm on Seanie were all bad shots that demanded varying sanctions at any period in the history of rugby.
The wider public reaction reached varying levels of outrage.
Now, a balance needs to be struck between what looks acceptable and what actually is acceptable. Seanie’s high tackle wasn’t really high.
But it looked bad, especially in slow motion.
There is a fine line between referring for the spectator and the players. One time I collided with Alesana Tuilagi, Manu’s bigger big brother. Leicester versus Leinster. As Felipe Contepomi delayed his pass I could see Tuilagi increasing his speed. The Samoan special was coming whether I got the ball or not. When Felipe did let it go the ball seemed to take an age to sail through the air. I’m dead here.
Tuilagi caught me square on the chest, moving upwards as the collision progressed, but I was able to spin with the tackle and despite a heavy landing I presented the ball on our side. It looked horrendous on television. But I was fine.
If it happened this weekend Tuilagi would walk. Yellow possibly red, despite a clean contact I had no issue with.
That viewpoint is relevant because most people have not played professional rugby so there is no way they could understand the collision zone.
One of the first things you learn starting off is tackle technique but in the very same instance you are shown how to take a tackle.
The collision, that wind escaping noise, can make most people fret.
Rugby players barely blink. Because they know it isn’t as bad as it looks. It’s not simply a disregard for your body but more a hardening of your mind because you are playing contact sport.
I don’t think rugby has become too dangerous. But something did have to change. I get that. We have to strike a balance to protect two crucial pillars of a professional sport that is growing into a global game.
Physicality and image are equally important in the marketing of rugby.
Irish parents looking into rugby for the first time because of what happened in Chicago were welcomed by the sight of Henshaw being carted off in Dublin.
The optics were not good.
During the November internationals, particularly the All Blacks high tackling display at the Aviva, we saw the need to better police this area.
Tackle technique is, once again, a key tool in winning matches.
Paul O’Connell often spoke about pulling Dan Lydiate aside on the 2009 Lions tour: Show me how you chop tackle like that.
Dan Leavy has it nailed down, presumably from his days in St Michael’s (Luke McGrath tackles the same way, low and hard). This makes Leavy a valuable commodity for Leinster in the coming months and years.
Dan’s crouched entry and excellent timing is supplemented by the physicality to make an immediate impact and deny the likes of CJ Stander that split second to offload. He almost always stays low, keeps his head up and maintains his centre of gravity to ensure a dynamic entry.
Pound for pound Isa Nacewa has the best tackle technique of anyone I’ve ever seen. Isa keeps his body weight distribution even. That means when he arrives, like a steam train, into contact the man is going down and there is a strong possibility of the ball spilling loose.
There are so many moving parts to perfecting this technique. If your contact foot is wrong as you enter the tackle you will lose power and can be run over.
In 2011 against France in Dublin every moving part was perfect for nine of the 10 collisions I entered. It was 15-all when Rougerie went over the top of me off an attacking scrum that saw Maxime Medard race over for a try Ireland never recovered from.
That’s what can happen. My initial contact was poor because I led with the wrong foot and left all my power behind me. My body weight, tempo and pace were all fine but the wrong foot left me exposed to a great French centre.
This also shows how the game can improve over time. Because there is so many pieces to a lower tackle, one half step too late and the player can break free or offload in contact. That means potentially more tries. Go low and mess up the body weight distribution and you’re a speed bump.
Get it wrong in midfield and a try is all but guaranteed. Get your technique correct and the Ma’a Nonus of this world come down like anyone else.
The potential is now there to reward teams who keep the ball for longer. Hence the way Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have been playing since last summer. Joe, of course, saw all this coming before the rest of us.
Certainly before Jaco Peyper.
Now, some players won’t change. They can’t. Their game is solely based upon living on the edge.
The physicality of rugby will not disappear. Especially not when a team like New Zealand are out for revenge or a home quarter-final of the Champions Cup is on the line. Or England come to Dublin on March 18th.
Marler is correct by saying the game is getting soft in comparison to how dangerous it had become. His game is built around being abrasive, so now he has to adjust more than most players, and maybe he is thinking: How on earth can I do that?
He is not alone. But a coach will no longer be able to select serial offenders.
The game isn’t getting soft. Players have become so powerful that tackling around the head area needed to be addressed. Zero tolerance isn’t a long term answer but it is the only way to lower the hits. To change a growing culture.
Nor do I think ultra-physical teams will be weakened by this rule. New Zealand will simply score more tries because they offload better than anyone else.
Even the Springboks can revert back to that one or two out runners, the way they used to launch Schalk Burger at the gainline. The double hit all but eradicated the effectiveness of this ploy and encouraged kicking.
Also, rucks have been a strange place in recent years to such an extent that barely anybody goes near them anymore as defences fan out across the field. The new tackle law will more than likely reduce numbers on the field due to sin-binnings, so there should be more space to attack.
My final note of caution over the next three weekends of crucial European matches – starting with Munster in Paris on Saturday – and on into the Six Nations is referees don’t shy away from the responsibility of adjudicating these scenarios by constantly turning to the TMOs.
The refs, like the players, need to learn and understand this new rule.
This is going to take time. Expect plenty of ridiculous calls that alter the result of massive games.
But maybe that is what rugby needs to get to where it wants to be.