Andy McGeady: Reduce toleration for a ‘hit’ that ignores the ball

Sometimes being ‘committed to the tackle’ is a concept that covers a multitude of sins

 Johnathan Sexton: was targeted off the ball by France’s Yohann Maestri.  Photograph: Alan Betson

Johnathan Sexton: was targeted off the ball by France’s Yohann Maestri. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

It would be bitter not to doff ones cap to the French. The referee will have won few fans and Ireland suffered yet more injuries. But Guy Noves has reworked a side demolished by New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup and beaten the reigning back-to-back Six Nations champions.

French captain, Guilhem Guirado, did not appear in the disciplinary dispatches from the Six Nations over the last couple of days. Both Irish and Welsh eyes will have been watching, having noted the confirmation of a citing commissioner’s warning for Yohann Maestri. We are to conclude the citing commissioner considered Guirado’s aerial adventures with Dave Kearney’s upper extremities to have been less severe than Maestri’s off the ball targeting of a defenceless Jonathan Sexton.

Two events

In the rule book of America’s National Football League there’s a character called the Defenceless Player. He pops up from time to time, increasing in profile over the years. Depending on the situation, players in various positions are judged as “defenceless” and an opponent will be harshly penalised for hitting them aggressively.

We see too the penalty of roughing the passer, where the league tries to protect those glory boys in the quarterback position by judging opponents with extreme prejudice if they follow through with a quarterback hit after they’ve released the ball.

A public relations spin on an NFL rule change ostensibly made to protect quarterback or wide receiver might be that player welfare is all. And if higher scoring games result, well that’s just gravy. Hard to argue against player welfare.

Still, when something is deemed inappropriately violent for the NFL then one might think long and hard as to why it might be legal in another sport.

Jonathan Sexton was clearly defenceless when Maestri decided to remind him of his presence on Saturday. The disciplinary process has judged that it should have been a yellow card at the time.

Yet rugby players are often defenceless in other ways.

When Guirado hit Kearney the Irishman at least had possession of the ball. But some in the game have a remarkable tendency to time the hit just after the ball has gone, right at the point at which their opponent is exposed. No card, no penalty. They were committed to the tackle.

It’s a fully understandable concept. After a certain point when one fully commits to a challenge the laws of physics can be seen to overrule the laws of the sport as written.

But often what that really means is that the player was committed to the hit. Smashing the opponent at all costs.

Tommy Smith, Chopper Harris and Norman Hunter were football men with hard reputations. They and their ilk were known for being committed to the tackle – at times perhaps 20 yards from their victim. Sometimes there might have even been contact with the ball.

There is much thought around rugby’s tackle laws in light of sport’s understandable concern around concussion.

A mindset

Yes, yes. Game’s gone soft. Players are bigger, stronger, faster and that means bigger collisions, without even going into tackle mechanics. Nothing we can do. But changes are not impossible. Rugby has made a successful change to the scrum for example, removing the hit in order to reduce resets and the rate of catastrophic injury.

Rugby has steadily moved away from the traditional set piece towards a game based on continuity. This means more contact events with ever-increasing forces involved.

Perhaps rugby needs to reduce the incentive for that hit lined up from distance where the opponent’s possession of the ball at impact is secondary to falling within the assassin’s crosshairs.

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