Andy McGeady: Why is a clearout treated differently to a tackle?

No-arm charges at rucks are just as dangerous as the highlighted tackles

Adam Jones walks off with a dislocated shoulder  during the second Test  between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions in 2009, after Bakkies Botha hit him with a no-arm clearout. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Adam Jones walks off with a dislocated shoulder during the second Test between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions in 2009, after Bakkies Botha hit him with a no-arm clearout. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

“That’s a very interesting one” said a current Test official when shown a video of a 19-stone international prop taking out an opponent with a flying shoulder to the back. Human body as missile. If it was a tackle it would have been a card, so why is it tolerated in the clearout?

Rugby’s safety spotlight has shone brightly in recent times. In 2014, after the Florian Fritz concussion incident for example, while earlier that same year its beam highlighted the man in the air when Jared Payne was sent off at Ravenhill. In 2011, the tip tackle was in the headlights after Sam Warburton received a red card in first half of a World Cup semi-final. Those events focused attention on particular parts of a sport in which the line between physical and dangerous can be perilously thin.

Bakkies Botha was in that spotlight during the 2009 Lions tour when suspended by the IRB for charging at Adam Jones in a ruck in the second test. Result: a dislocated shoulder and fines doled out to South African players and management for wearing “Justice4Bakkies” armbands in the third test. Whatever the merits of Botha’s punishment, five years later rugby seems little further on in terms of players careering headlong into opponents without using their arms. There is no post-Bakkies era.

When Wales played Scotland two weekends ago there was an interesting passage of play. It began with 17:57 on the clock. Wales outhalf Dan Biggar hoists a steepling garryowen magnificently caught by Leigh Halfpenny who, as he comes to earth, pops the ball up to the supporting Rhys Webb. Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg tackles Webb, immediately leaps to his feet and adopts a jackal position over both Webb and the ball.

Brink of legality

Glen Jackson

Wales would need to clear Hogg out to continue the attack. Enter Wales prop Gethin Jenkins, unleashing the full force of his 19 stones through his shoulder into the centre of Hogg’s back. Jackal becomes rag doll, bouncing away. Thankfully, he got up.

Both referee and touch judge were close by and had a clear view of the incident. No penalty. No “TMO check” in the referee’s ear from the video referee. No slow-motion replay from the TV producer.

A player in that low, jackal position takes the risk of using their back as protection in order to make himself extremely difficult to shift and free both arms to poach the ball. The lower they are, the greater the difficulty of clearing them out, particularly if they adopt an illegal stance. This has resulted in innovations like the “croc roll” or “tin opener” technique, judo-like movements considered illegal in previous rugby generations. And of course the shoulder torpedo.

Uncomfortable truth

Hogg was lucky. The injury potential was high, certainly “longer than a yellow card” as one educated source put it. Three to four weeks at the low end, a painful 10-to-12-week recovery at the higher end, with damage to the spinal column itself as a worst case scenario “if he was very unlucky”.

Neath scrumhalf Gareth Jones died in 2008 as a result of injuries sustained in a ruck. Later that year rugby’s governing body issued a memo emphasising zero tolerance on players charging into the ruck and maul (with the tackle mentioned briefly in the introduction); in 2009 there was a clarification in law on a similar point. A memo in 2011 discussed the trend of “dangerous grasping” and in 2014 we saw a clarification on the difference between a player clearing out using a “body roll” (legal) and a “head roll” (illegal).

The no-arms clearout should not be seen as normal; nothing has changed in rugby’s many laws to make it so.

Perhaps a new memo is required.

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