Coaches must lead quest to change collision culture
The colour red has long been synonymous with the festive season but there isn’t anything joyful or triumphant about its recent association with rugby union.
A spate of dismissals have hogged the headlines in recent weeks, and often divided opinion, with referees determined to underline World Rugby’s commitment to player welfare and eliminate dangerous play.
If you were not familiar with the sport you could be forgiven for thinking that it is inherently dangerous when in fact it is perhaps just a little confused and suffering from its latest bout of growing pains.
Of particular concern for all are head injuries with fears surrounding concussion and specifically how it is identified and treated casting a significant shadow over the sport.
As part of their efforts to address the issue and silence their doubters, World Rugby is set introduce a ‘zero tolerance’ policy when it comes to contact with the head in a bid to reduce the risk of injury and preserve the sport’s reputation.
A new Law application guideline regarding an ‘illegal tackle’ will come into force at all levels of the game on January 3 that will include minimum on-field sanctions for reckless and accidental contact with the head and effectively lower the acceptable height of a tackle.
It is a logical and understandable move but referees have already begun the crackdown with the latest action in Europe’s premier club rugby competitions – the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup – punctuated by countless yellow and red cards for dangerous play in the tackle, ruck and maul.
Predictably and disappointingly this has led to criticism from a host of former players, current players, coaches and pundits who have accused the sport of ‘going soft’ with some even saying ‘goodbye’ to the game as we know it.
The suggestion that the game has ‘changed overnight’ may make for a good sound bite but the evolution of the sport arguably began with the dawn of professionalism in 1995.
The sport’s leading players were suddenly afforded the time to dedicate their lives to becoming fitter, faster and stronger athletes than any that had played the game before them.
That awe-inspiring blend of power and pace brought a new dimension to what was already a physical game and developments in sports science and analysis in the years since have further fuelled that transformation.
The tackle has also evolved from that covered by Law 15: “A tackle occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and is brought to ground.”
These days tacklers are tasked with so much more with the focus often on delivering a momentum-halting and attack-splintering hit in the crucial battle of the gain line. Or the aim could be what has become known as the ‘choke’ tackle that has been specifically designed to ensure the ball carrier does not go to ground.
Professionalism and the often brutal but crowd-pleasing battles it has produced has led to an increase in the sport’s popularity around the globe but World Rugby are rightfully concerned that it does not come at a significant physical cost to the players – or turn just as many away from the grassroots end of the game.
Critics will have you believe that we are destined for just another version of touch rugby but World Rugby has to look beyond a brief media storm and safeguard the very future of the sport.
It cannot stand by and watch players endanger themselves knowing full well the physical threat posed by the modern professional rugby player even when playing within the Laws of the game.
They will also be well aware of the massive NFL payout to former American Football players, many suffering from dementia and depression that they attributed to head injuries, following a court case that alleged that sport had concealed the dangers of concussion while highlighting and profiting from the extreme physicality.
Those who are responsible for engaging and developing the next generation of players, and assuring the parents of youngsters who have an ever-increasing number of sporting options open to them, need a sport that does not strike fear into their hearts but one that when combined with its enviable values proves more attractive than any other.
World Rugby are not demanding players go easy when it comes to tackling because they know that physical element is one of the sport’s trump cards – they are just insisting that the aggression is controlled and not reckless.
Coaches and players now have a responsibility to review how they teach and play the game, specifically collisions at the tackle or ruck, because the potential cost is not just the odd penalty, a sin-binning, a few points against them on the scoreboard or even the occasional defeat – it is the future of the sport.
To support their request for officials, coaches and players to be proactive in changing the existing culture, World Rugby are set to continue a ‘global education programme’.
This will stress that illegal tackles are not necessarily defined by where they start with sanctions set to punish those that slip up from a legal position to make contact with the neck or head.
It is a work in progress and World Rugby intend to seek advice from elite defence coaches as to the best tackle technique, the best impact position for the ball carrier and directives for double or even triple tackles.
Interestingly, they are also investigating the practicality of a closed trial of a lowered tackle height at community age-grade level in 2017. Could such a development in turn lead to more off-loads, a faster game and arguably a more attractive product?
Without doubt the debut of the new guidelines next year will prompt yet more critical headlines with the ‘accidental contact’ element and stipulated penalty sanction even when ‘the ball carrier slips into the tackle’ already triggering alarm bells and prompting predictions of abuse by players.
We can only hope that the latter is just scaremongering and coaches and players will adapt and thrive on the chance to capitalise on these changes rather than condemn them.
Together we must all support World Rugby’s ongoing efforts to strike the right balance between player welfare and a thrilling physical edge to the game.
From 3 January, 2017, two new categories of dangerous tackles will carry penalty offences to deter and eradicate high tackles:
Law 10.4 Dangerous play and misconduct
e) Dangerous tackling (additions)
A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game if in making contact, 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. This sanction applies even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. This type of contact also applies to grabbing and rolling or twisting around the head/neck area even if the contact starts below the line of the shoulders.
Minimum sanction: Yellow card
Maximum sanction: Red card
When making contact with another player during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game, if 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