World Rugby still struggling to address the dangerous tackling conundrum
Speed and huge physical strength means even legal tackles can end careers
Referee Nic Berry shows a red card to John Quill of the USA following the Irishman’s high tackle on England’s Owen Farrell during the World Cup clash in Kolbe. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
The Misaki Stadium had long become a sauna by the time Owen Farrell took possession off the ball right in front of the England goalposts on Thursday night in their pool game against Japan.
The roof was closed. It was 27 degrees to begin with and there were no escape valves for all of that body heat. As a contest, the game was done and most of the fans were finishing the dregs of their beers, fanning themselves to stay cool and planning their routes back into downtown Kobe.
Farrell is blessed with the surest pair of hands in the business. But the pass wasn’t perfect and he had to reach for it. In normal conditions, he’d secure it 99 times out of a hundred. But, as the players testified afterwards, the ball was soapy. This time, though, he fumbled it and out of frustration, he retrieved the knock on and continued his run forward.
The movement left him careering forward, head first. John Quill, the Cork man who declared for the USA and was making his World Cup debut, had already lined England’s playmaker up in his sight-lines.
You have to assume Quill was thinking through tiredness and frustration at this point. It’s no excuse for what happened but its also the probable truth. The physical demands had been relentless and the Americans had spent most of the night being run ragged by England’s increasingly emboldened and varied attacking game. Plus, they had performed in a way that was grimly disappointing to them. Quill continued to move forward.
Even from the nose blood seats, it was obvious that a collision was imminent. Seconds later, as Farrell began to straighten his body and shaping to pass the ball, he was met square in the face by Quill’s shoulder.
Farrell is no lightweight: 15 stone of conditioned athlete. But in meeting Quill – over 16 stone of sinew in a 6ft 2ins frame – he was always going to come off second best. Farrell was thrown backwards onto the grass, where he lay for a few seconds before climbing back to his feet looking to exact retribution. By then, the mood in the stadium had changed to indignant outrage among the predominantly English support.
Here was the vivid and graphic arrival of the kind of tackle World Rugby had been trying to avoid in a tournament designed to showcase the best attributes of the game.
Intense physical contact and ferocious tackling are key to rugby’s appeal. But this example contravened all of the standards laid out; it was high and it was more of a shoulder charge into the head of a player in possession of the ball and with no real chance to defend himself.
Quill is a new player on the international scene, playing for a tier two rugby country. England’s ambitions of winning the Webb Ellis trophy are indelibly linked with Farrell’s health. This was the kind of hit that could easily damage a player. The moment was further complicated in that it mirrored a tackle by Farrell on Andre Esterhuizen in an England Test against South Africa in the winter of 2018, which went unpunished. But that was then.
In Kobe, the crowd demanded retribution.
After a few minutes of consultation, during which Quill stood with his arms on his hips, probably resigned to his fate, the red card was duly produced. He left the field to a chorus of boos and incensed comments and carrying now the unhappy distinction of being the first player sent off at the World Cup.
You could see the stress on the Cork man’s face as he left the field. This can’t have been how he dreamt of a big night against England turning out. Quill was good enough to come through Munster’s underage academy. He may have once had private ambitions, however fledgling, of one day playing for his country.
This was the next best thing. Because he had been involved in a hit against such a high-profile player from one of the biggest teams in world rugby, he must have guessed straight away that the incident was destined to be remembered. On the live broadcasts of the day, the condemnations were stark and unforgiving. Quill disappeared down the tunnel.
Clive Woodward, the former England World Cup-winning coach, was the most outspoken in his verdict, stating that the challenge could have finished Farrell’s career.
Eddie Jones, the current coach, was in such upbeat mood that he passed the moment off with a series of typically irreverent and brash jokes. Farrell finished the game but departed with a deep gash on the side of his face.
On Friday evening, Quill was handed a three-game ban that effectively ends his tournament. Furthermore, England centre Piers Francis was cited for his high challenge on USA fullback Will Hooley in the opening few moments. Both men are of equal stature so the consequences weren’t as spectacularly violent as the Farrell incident.
The game was a one-sided demonstration of England’s power and finesse but the moment illuminated the problem for rugby. Its players have never been more athletic or powerful. Hard, fair tackling remains one of the core attractions of the game. Retaining that aggression while trying to arrive at the safest outcome to ensure the short -and long -term well-being of its athletes is a problem not easily resolved. The sight of players leaving the field with concussive symptoms is common.
The disturbing trend of more and more players bowing out of the game too young because their heads literally hurt all the time from playing it, because their thinking is fuzzy, continues to pose uncomfortable questions about how to guide the sport through an era when explosive speed and unprecedented physical strength are the source of collisions that make you wince.
It’s a problem for the sport that the best coaches and players in the world are participating in its showpiece tournament with a degree of uncertainty over how they should think about something as basic and complex as the tackle, with Joe Schmidt among those pointing out that the new compulsion to go in low leaves the tackler more vulnerable than ever to a blow to the head.
Woodward may well have been flying the flag of St George when he called out Quill’s tackle. He was, of course, correct; the tackle could have ended Farrell’s career. The big problem for rugby is that legal tackles have the potential to do the same thing.