How high tackle sanctions could impact on Six Nations

Penalties for reckless or accidental hits have increased since guideline was introduced

New Zealand’s TJ Perenara hits Ireland fullback  Rob Kearney high at the Aviva Stadium in November. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

New Zealand’s TJ Perenara hits Ireland fullback Rob Kearney high at the Aviva Stadium in November. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

New high tackle sanctions took effect on January 3rd, with zero tolerance when it comes to contact with an opponent’s head. Whether the high tackle is deliberate, reckless or accidental, any sanction starts with a penalty, working its way upwards to a red card. Some predicted chaos. But what has happened since their introduction, and how will they impact the Six Nations?

World Rugby’s new guidelines are based on an analysis performed of 611 HIA (head injury assessment) incidents recorded in 1,516 games at rugby’s elite level from 2013 to 2015, each seeing a player assessed because of suspected or confirmed brain injury. Of these, 464 related to the tackle. Each was coded against video footage based on several factors thought to be associated with risk (eg player speed, tackler position, whether the tackler hit from front or side on).

Output from this analysis, presented to a conference at the University of Bath last autumn, showed that the tackle was the situation at highest risk of a HIA incident with the tackler at three times greater risk than the ball-carrier. Both tackler and ball-carrier are at highest risk when entering the tackle in an upright position. The guidelines are to incentivise tacklers to go lower. Success will be evidenced by a reduction in HIAs as the player most at risk changes his behaviour.

This season saw 291 matches played across the Pro12, Top 14, Premiership and Champions Cup before January 3rd, with 32 played between then and January 23rd. This is when you get your sample size warning – 32 games is not a lot. But given that warning, what have we seen?

Reliable HIA data

Asked whether HIA numbers could be made available to The Irish Times from its central HIA database, World Rugby said that they wouldn’t expect to see reliable HIA data just yet. “In any event, we wouldn’t necessarily expect to see a change in player behaviour or player culture three weeks in. But we would expect to see a rise in the number of penalties and cards related to this.”

We have seen that increase. Using referee and team data from Opta, we’ve seen a high-tackle penalty every 16 penalties compared to 26 before the guidelines took effect, and a high-tackle penalty every 208 tackles compared to 261 beforehand. These are big differences.

Yellow cards were actually less frequent, but this comes with a sizeable caveat. We didn’t have a round played in the Top 14 in 2017 until the weekend just gone, a league where the sin-bin rate per game this season (1.6 yellow cards per match) has been double that of England’s Aviva Premiership (0.8).

Looking at the Champions Cup alone – fewer games still – the rate of yellow cards has increased by 10 per cent. We haven’t yet seen an increase in offloading rate.

A data spike after a new directive is not unexpected. The tip tackle, the crooked feed, the mid-air collision: all saw their time in the crosshairs before settling down. In some cases, players adjust behaviour; in others, referees and assessors perhaps move on to the new directive de jour. And we sometimes see reinterpretation of the black and white of rugby law to take into account the natural chaos of the sports field.

Minimum sanction

The guideline’s wording reads harshly, prescribing a minimum sanction of a penalty for even accidental contact with the head, including “situations where the ball-carrier slips into the tackle”. The term “foul play” is absent, while “accidental” can now be deemed a crime in rugby law. In an effort to demystify the issues, the PR machine is rolling. Wayne Barnes has been on BT and John Lacey on Sky, both placing emphasis on whether there has actually been foul play.

Will it impact the Six Nations? Ireland, choke tacklers par excellence, will need to recognise the danger of having their head in an opponent’s headspace given the current spotlight. However, part of World Rugby’s analysis actually showed that a smothering upright tackle was a much lower risk than others.

We’ll hear a changing rugby language. Irish referees have been instructed to desist from using the word “accidental” when describing an incident where there was contact with the head but without, in the opinion of the referee, foul play (whether deliberate, reckless, or accidental). So over the officials’ microphones expect to instead hear terms like “rugby collision”, or “no foul play, play on”.

We’ll probably have a high-tackle incident in a crucial Six Nations game, casting all fuss around recent controversial yellow and red cards into nothingness. We’ve seen this before upon the introduction of new focuses in the game, perhaps most famously when Sam Warburton was sent off for a tip tackle by Alain Rolland in the 2011 World Cup semi-final.

Rolland is now head of World Rugby’s match officials. Should such a high-tackle flashpoint occur, he’ll have more empathy than most.

World Rugby Guidelines

RECKLESS TACKLE

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 that 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.

Minimum sanction: Yellow card

Maximum sanction: Red card

ACCIDENTAL TACKLE

When making contact with another player during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game, if a player makes accidental contact with an opponent’s head, either directly or where the contact starts below the line of the shoulders, the player may still be sanctioned. This includes situations where the ball-carrier slips into the tackle.

Minimum sanction: Penalty

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