The neck roll in rugby – players coached to target necks?

Earlier this summer World Rugby issued an edict to their officials that a number of laws needed to be more strictly enforced. One of these laws was law 10.4 (e) which covers high tackles and neck contact. The guidance read:

  • Every time the head or the neck is deliberately grabbed or choked, the offending player runs the risk of receiving a yellow or red card
  • Cleanouts around the neck must be penalised

As a result referees, assistant referees and television match officials have picked up a large number of players for what is commonly know known as the neck roll.  If you don’t know what one looks like here is England’s Tom Youngs giving a text book example of what a clear out at the ruck by the neck looks like (a neck roll).

So far so good, but on nearly every occasion a player has been pulled up for carrying out a neck roll the sanction has been just a penalty, even though the guidance says players “run the risk of receiving a yellow or red card”.

This begs the question what sort of neck roll would warrant a yellow let alone a red card given nearly every example in the Rugby World Cup has been punished with a penalty?

If World Rugby are saying this type of incident is serious then why hasn’t it been refereed accordingly?

Flatman and Shane Williams’ comments

In the Australia – Wales pool game Wales’ Toby Faletau was penalised for a neck roll (a penalty only of course). That in itself hasn’t been uncommon in this tournament but the subsequent comments from ITV’s pundits Shane Williams and David Flatman were quite illuminating.

These are the main excerpts from the full discussion immediately following the neck roll:

Flatman: “It [the neck roll] is dangerous, it has got to go”.

Williams: “When I was playing, which wasn’t too long ago, we used to actually train that technique where you would roll a player out of the breakdown by grabbing him by the shoulder or the neck. Just swinging, twisting and taking the player out. Obviously the rules have changed and it’s deemed illegal now and dangerous, and probably rightly so, it is very dangerous”.

Flatman: “Dead right Shane, we used to have judo coaches come in to the club, and the international session, teaching us that technique but it has got to go. It is dangerous”.

It is probably worth reading those comments back again to appreciate what was actually said. There are a few striking things about these admissions:

  • Clubs and international teams have been coaching their players to target the neck of opposition players (“grabbing”, “swinging” and “twisting” were the words used by Shane Williams)
  • Both Shane Williams and David Flatman think that the neck roll is “dangerous”

Shane Williams is wrong that the rules have changed; they haven’t, it is just that the World Rugby has decided officials should focus on it. Shane was also wrong when he said “…it’s deemed illegal now and dangerous” – grabbing someone by the neck and twisting or forcing it has always been dangerous.

There are two lines of deduction from this.

The first is that in the not so distant past players such as Flatman and Williams just did what they were told by coaches and didn’t question it. They wouldn’t have thought of the repercussions of twisting someone’s neck and it is only in light of World Rugby’s recent focus and their retirement from the game that they have re-evaluated the tactic as being “dangerous”.

The second conclusion is that players would have been aware that twisting or forcing the neck was dangerous but fear of reprisals from coaches and clubs meant that they didn’t raise the issue. We have already seen several ex-players and medics come forward to say they felt under pressure as players to put their medical concerns to one side (mainly around concussion impacts) and deliver for the team – is this another example of club pressure overriding health and safety concerns?

Theblitzdefence often criticises World Rugby and sometimes criticises referees but there are times when clubs, coaches and players need to take the lead on issues of player safety. It shouldn’t take a World Rugby focus on neck rolls for players to decide not to attack each other by the neck.

It is quite incredible that professional rugby coaches are asking their players to target the neck of a fellow professional.

Players have a duty of care to each other. Coaches and players need to remember this.

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One thought on “The neck roll in rugby – players coached to target necks?

  1. So Nick Blevins (Canada), gets a five week ban, whereas Tom Youngs who seems to be trying to pull the other guys head off isn’t even cited(as far as I know)!
    But then Canada is a tier two nation and World Rugby don’t want to upset the host nation do they!

    Liked by 1 person

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