Subscriber OnlyRugby

Gordon D’Arcy: The days of rugby's physical enforcer might be numbered

World Rugby need to be sure about which problem they are trying to solve

Two wildly contrasting spectacles last weekend: Thomond Park provided an ominous sign of where the game could be going while Stade Ernest Wallon was a brilliant advertisement for rugby.

The Danny Cipriani red card opens a much needed debate.

What is the problem World Rugby is trying to solve ahead of Japan 2019?

The image of the game or safety of players?


Probably both.

I genuinely feel for Cipriani. After his pre-season misdemeanours and constant narrative about non-selection for England, he needed a microscopic examination of his no-arms tackle technique like a hole in the head (pardon the pun).

Cipriani wanted nothing to do with Rory Scannell’s charge yet his half-tackle earned him a red card.

Was it a sending off?

This season, yes. Last season, yellow card at most. In 2016, penalty or play on. His shoulder made contact with Scannell's face. It was careless and he was protecting himself more than anything else. This is not Jerome Kaino. This is not Will Spencer. This is red card by proximity.

However, in the uncontrolled environment of the game, the unpredictable attacker forces unfamiliar decisions in real time

If still playing I wouldn’t have had to alter my technique too much but that would not have made me immune to this flurry of red cards.

Training is a hollow environment, as you know which way Ferg McFadden likes to step or what hand Jamie Heaslip prefers to hold the ball, so I can come out of the Tuesday session fully intending to deliver a faultless, disciplined defensive display at the weekend.

However, in the uncontrolled environment of the game, the unpredictable attacker forces unfamiliar decisions in real time. This is the beauty of sport; how they are running, how you interpret the defenders around you, and emotional states, all feed into the split-second decision. Does this feel like an offload, will I get bumped if I go low or do I just need to throw myself into the spokes?

There is no decision to be made. You hit what you see. That’s never going to change.

Any team I ever played on the plan was to, where possible, try to remove officials from the equation. On one hand it is simple to encourage lower tackles but that brings a different sort of collision, like the gruesome head clash between Exeter duo Sam Skinner and Dave Ewers when they tackled Tommy O'Donnell.

This brings up two questions: what are we trying to solve here? What responsibility does the ball carrier have in all this?

This is a live environment. Rugby is a contact sport. We know the rules of engagement.

Right now, that risks attached to going low outweigh the potential sanction from tackling high.

It’s going to be a very long run into the World Cup. The pendulum has swung a little too far the other way. It’s not a question of getting away with anything but how these decisions are impacting and altering the flow of games.

Could Cipriani’s tackle have been better judged in real time rather than slow-mo? Did the punishment fit the crime in this instance? My gut is the red card was a little harsh and certainly ruined any chance of a decent game driven by two exciting outhalves in direct competition. The anticipation around this game evaporated when he walked off.

I believe we are in the midst of a battle for the future direction of rugby. Season structures are being changed and the custodians are trying to help the game respond to the challenges it is facing. Are the players the priority or the image of the game? Ideally, they are mutually aligned.

There is no silver bullet. I've hit opponents in the face despite being perfectly positioned for the tackle because their shape changed in the collision

I’m blessed, after a 17-year professional career, to not be an expert on concussion.

My attitude to defending – and it became the cornerstone of my career from the moment my pace disappeared at 30, some may say earlier. As line breaks dried up I needed to survive and tackling became a valuable commodity. The jump from 10 tackles to sometimes 20 per game made a variety in technique essential; coping with Bastareaud, getting set for Tuilagi or using angles against Nonu.

There is no silver bullet. I’ve hit opponents in the face despite being perfectly positioned for the tackle because their shape changed in the collision.

Rarely did I seek to physically dominate in contact. Chop and counter ruck unless the analysis reveals someone like Yannick Jauzion or Sonny Bill will offload so the upper body must be wrapped. You will concede ground by not taking them to ground, but that is more appealing that a terminal offload.

Referee is becoming a nightmare job. Alexandre Ruiz went letter of the law and followed the instructions of his employers to put Cipriani off. Gloucester responded by leaving high shots in all over the park.

A ref with more composure might only sin bin Cipriani – especially considering Rory Scannell wasn't injured (and he led with his head), not that this should matter but it does – and Ruiz could then red card Billy Twelvetrees for smashing Joey Carbery high and to the face (where was Ruiz's TMO citing in motion?).

But the pendulum has swung the other way. Slow-motion replay is the main decision-making tool and in some instances it is trumping common sense. The rules are the same, the game is just being reffed differently. Players falling into tackles or slapping arms leading to head on head or shoulder on head is uncontrollable behaviour. This will always happen.

Remember Sam Cane's hit on Robbie Henshaw in 2016 that ended in an Ireland penalty, no yellow card and the All Blacks flanker being exonerated in the subsequent disciplinary hearing?

Cane wasn’t worrying about consequences. His decision was easy; I’m 10kgs heavier so If I hit this guy as hard as possible I can stop the ball and the player. The contact was vicious, partly due to Henshaw spinning into contact, but the officials saw something entirely different to what actually happened. Robbie was stretchered off and Cane received no ban.

Redo that incident today and it's a red card with five-week suspension, which is what Kaino got for concussing Jamie Roberts.

The pendulum has swung. The days of the physical enforcer, who plays on the borderline of legitimacy, might be numbered.

That’s nothing to do with Cipriani. He was pulling out of the tackle.

Common sense in real time under heavy pressure remains important or this debate will roll deep into Japan 2019

Maybe the yellow or red card sanction should suffice with no suspension for an accidental high tackle when no injury has occurred.

If the objective is to remove physicality from rugby watch out for lower tackles becoming torpedo hits to the midriff or the legs. The ball carrier injury rates will drop as the tackler’s increase, I suspect.

The pendulum could swing further still. The state of the player after a high shot appears to be influencing referees. What happens if someone is hit square on the chest and either a) The whiplash causes a concussion or b) The force of impact, head on ground, leads to injury – is that a red card because the tackle injures the ball carrier?

That’s when the sport is in a real quandary.

Common sense in real time under heavy pressure remains important or this debate will roll deep into Japan 2019.

And nobody wants that.

What we want to be talking about is the state of the game. That means focusing on what happened in Toulouse.

Toulouse were able to handle the way Leinster relentlessly attacked the gainline and they struck a killer blow at source. This is a good lesson for Luke McGrath. Watch how a player of his intellect learns from throwing that intercept pass. I believe the pass was the right decision poorly executed (hence the intercept).

McGrath’s high tempo, ball-in-hand approach was a major reason why Leinster fought back into a 27-21 lead with 67 minutes played. They were going for the jugular.

Ironically the champion’s mentality proved their undoing. McGrath will use this gentle reminder that he is one of the players relentlessly tasked with thinking a level above others on the field.

The scrumhalf is king in these moments – 80 metres is an awful long way to the Leinster try line. A heads-up on the way to the ruck, a glance at the Toulouse line and Maxime Medard doesn't get a whiff of possession.

Two wildly contrasting games, one full to the brim with controversy, the other stuffed with all the reasons why we love rugby.

My takeaway from round two is the value of going backwards to attack.

Thankfully, that is still rewarded and if the ball is put into space we’ll avoid those dangerous and costly collisions.