As if rugby isn’t complicated enough, those wags at World Rugby (WR) have decided to keep things interesting by changing the laws mid-season. Actually, to be accurate, the laws are the same but the guidelines have been considerably tightened to clamp down on any contact with the head in the tackle.
So, what’s changed?
With good intentions at heart, World Rugby has brought in new guidelines that aim to protect players from harmful contact with the head. The official explanation is here but we would sum it up by saying that WR has now made accidental or reckless contact with the head a punishable offence. The onus is on the tackler (and not the ball carrier) to ensure he/she does not contact with the head of the carrier; it’s a zero tolerance approach.
To add a bit more flesh on the topic, there are now two new categories of dangerous tackle:
- Reckless tackle – “the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway.” Minimum sanction – yellow card, maximum – red.
- Accidental tackle – “a player makes accidental contact with an opponent’s head, either directly or where the contact starts below the line of the shoulders, the player may still be sanctioned. This includes situations where the ball-carrier slips into the tackle.” Minimum sanction – penalty.
We could pick these definitions apart for hours and still not understand them better, so lets have a look at what happened in the first weekend of action where the guidelines were active. Hopefully this will shed light on how they will be interpreted.
Pro 12 – Scarlets v Ulster (referee Marius Mitrea)
(1) Jake Ball – penalty
Mitrea immediately blew for this tackle and said the offence was “accidental” and hence a penalty. No TMO referral. The fact that the attacking player dipped in to contact and the fact that Ball’s tackle started below the shoulders and came up to the neck are both irrelevant in the guidelines.
(2) Sean Reidy – yellow card and Scarlets’ penalty try
Reidy was shown a yellow card, but this could have been for the penalty try offence rather than the high tackle itself. This was reviewed by the TMO.
(3) Jake Ball tackle number 2
The Scarlets’ second row is at it again but this time Mitrea refers the incident to the TMO.
We can just about make out Mitrea’s comments above Jonathan Davies’ chatter but he seems to say this incident was the same as the Reidy incident, which seems to suggest Reidy was carded for the tackle and not for stopping the try.
We can assume Mitrea has deemed these last two incidents as reckless rather than accidental.
Pro12 Ospreys v Connacht (referee John Lacey)
(1) Hanno Dirksen – penalty
In this example the Ospreys’ winger takes out the Connacht player from behind with a high arm. Lacey calls it “a little high” and awards a penalty. It is referred to the TMO.
(2) Tom McCartney – penalty
McCartney takes Tom Habberfield high as he snipes down the blind. Lacey doesn’t use the TMO and awards a penalty only.
Aviva Premiership – Saracens v Exeter (referee Ian Tempest)
(1) Richard Barrington (red card) and Brad Barritt (no punishment)
Exeter’s Geoff Parling was unfortunately concussed in this tackle which resulted in a red card for Saracen’s Barrington.
Interestingly, the first high hit came from Barritt, who went completely unpunished; compare this to some of the yellow cards in the Pro12 games and this looks like a glaring inconsistency.
While the TMO is reviewing the incident, the commentary team even talk about the likely punishment for Barritt, while the referee says he can see a high hit from 12. It will be interesting to see if Barritt is subsequently cited.
This was a game of 5 concussions, several of which came from the tackaler going low in to contact and hitting some of the bonier parts of the ball carrier. One side-effect of these new guidelines is that with tacklers being forced to go low we may see more head to knee contacts and potentially more head injuries.
As the screen shot below shows attackers will now run lower in to contact, knowing it is difficult for defenders to try and take them by the shoulders.
The second screen shot (below) gives a good indication just how low the ball carrier’s head is as he comes in to contact, with the Exeter hooker trying the more conventional head-on tackle, which we may now find is outlawed.
Questions that need to be answered
- Why do we have such large inconsistencies between the way the guidelines are applied across leagues and within one league? It is understandable that such fundamental changes need time to bed in but this brings us on to point 2.
- Why was this brought in mid-season, when it is obvious that players’ tackling approaches and defensive structures will have to be changed to accommodate the guidelines?
- Why are so many senior people in the game (Dai Young, Mark McCall et al) questioning the guidelines and how they will be interpreted? There seems to be a lack of consultation or feedback from those that really matter – the players and coaches who are at risk.
- Why do supporters seem to be against the guidelines? Is this again a failure of WR to properly communicate the reasons for the change and the benefits? Our theblitzdefence Twitter poll (see results below) showed a huge number of followers thought they were dreadful changes; and yet these are people who turn up week after week to watch the players the law is supposed to be protecting.
- What are the responsibilities of the ball carrier in the tackle area? It seems the onus is skewed towards the tackler without considering how the carrier contributes to any collision?
No one involved in rugby wants to see serious injuries but WR has failed to consult properly on these changes, with both players and coaches and also the paying rugby supporting public.
Secondly, time may show that this has been a positive change but WR needs to make this case forcably and demonstrate to those involved in the game why it has made the changes and how the game is safer because of it.
Finally, whether these changes are a positive change or not from a player welfare perspective, they are another nail in the coffin of making rugby a simple but enjoyable game to watch. These guidelines are going to make the game more difficult to watch and bring more frustration to supporters and players alike.
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