New high-tackle rule forcing Sean Reidy to rethink game

Ulster backrow falls foul of referee’s interpretation of introduced law

Ulster’s Sean Reidy tackle on Aled Davies of Scarlets in the Pro12 on Friday was deemed illegal. Photograph: Ben Evans/Inpho.

Zebre may well have got clean away with a high touchline tackle on Leinster's Rory O'Loughlin. But Ulster backrow Sean Reidy paid an exorbitantly high price against Scarlets just days after the new high-tackle rule was introduced mid-season by World Rugby. People are confused.

Reidy’s time on the pitch this season for Ulster is only surpassed by his tackle count. In the final run in to their away European Champions Cup game against Exeter this week, the Kiwi-born backrow sits on top of the Pro12 table with 155 tackles so far, more than any other player.

He knows how to execute but when the yellow card came out and referee Marius Mitrea awarded a penalty try to Scarlets last weekend it seemed, in the light of the high tackle O'Loughlin suffered, harsh in the extreme.

It unfolded thus. Scarlets were on the Ulster line. Replacement scrumhalf Aled Davies took possession and Reidy tackled high to hold him back. Mitrea saw it as contravention of the new laws and Reidy walked.


Among the mid-season directives is a zero tolerance stance on tackles starting below the line of the shoulders which go on to make contact with the head, an offence which carries a minimum sanction of a yellow card.

Good luck with that Devin Toner when Kieran Marmion is running at you.

‘Positive tackle’

“At the time I thought I made a positive tackle but they saw it in a different light and that is his call,” says Reidy. “He just said the tackle was around the neck region so that prevented a try. I think he went upstairs and got a bit of feedback from upstairs so obviously the new rules have changed and you can’t make any contact from around that area.

“During the game there were numerous tackles that were similar, even throughout the weekend,” he added, perhaps thinking of the O’Loughlin hit that went unpunished

As a number eight and openside, tackling is the bread and butter of Reidy’s position, where he has excelled. But he will not be the only player mystified over the coming weeks as teams and referees adjust to change as an ongoing work in progress replete with sanctions.

“Obviously so close to the line what can you do?” asks Reidy. “If you dive at the blokes ankles he’s just going to float over the top. If you go too high you are going to be yellow carded. What can you do?

“I’m sure the laws will ease off a bit the next couple of weeks. We knew we were going to have to change our approach a little bit but obviously I didn’t think it would be that bad.”

Robbie Diack and Craig Gilroy are back for coach Les Kiss as his side faces into a trip to Sandy Park. Ulster are eyeing a runner-up spot in the pool and by necessity targeting two wins to prolong their European season.

Big pack, rolling maul may be over simplifying the Exeter threat. But if the English team play to their strengths, that is what Ulster expect to face.

Their problem is that Ulster sit third in Pool 5, behind second-placed Bordeaux-Begles and leaders Clermont Auvergne.

“They’ve got some big boys but we have some class footballers as well,” says Reidy, who was capped during Ireland’s tour to South Africa last summer.

“If we can match them up front we know our backs can do the business. One of their go-to areas is the rolling maul. We really have to go and negate that this week. We are going over there to get stuck in to them.

‘Odd mistake’

“I think we have shown we can score points if we can get into the right areas. The dropped ball, the odd mistake here and there is really costing us. I’ve seen in the past, 16 to 19 points can go through. So get a couple of wins and we are well in the hunt.”

The high-tackle rule is here to stay. But if Ulster fluff their lines this week in Sandy Park, where Reidy has never played as he missed out on their pre-season game, Ulster shuffle off the European stage.

Ulster’s refixed home Pro12 tie against Zebre will take place on Saturday, March 12th, at the Kingspan Stadium, with the game kicking off at 6.05pm.

The round nine game, originally scheduled for November 25th, was called off late due to a frozen pitch at the Belfast venue.

Ulster will again be missing their Irish international contingent for the game as Ireland take on Wales at the Millennium Stadium on the Friday night.

A date has still to be finalised for Connacht’s round three home fixture against the Italian side, with Pro12 organisers awaiting the outcome of the Champions Cup pool stages.

Connacht’s trip to play the Cardiff Blues in round 14 will kick-off at 1.05pm on Sunday, February 12th, while Ospreys’ home game against Munster in round 15 has been confirmed for a 5.15pm kick-off at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday, February 18th.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times