Back in November 2016 World rugby announced the introduction of a new tougher approach to accidental and reckless head contact through two new categories of dangerous tackle within the laws of the game.
The effect of these changes is to promote and encourage a lower height in the tackle situation which in turn it is hoped will lead to a lower number of head injuries, in particular concussion which is a growing concern within the game.
This approach was adopted by World Rugby having been informed by data from some 1,500 elite level matches, identifying the most common situations leading to head injuries and which identified that 76% are caused in the tackle.
Players, coaches and match officials have, as a result, been urged to be proactive in changing the culture of the tackle throughout all levels of the game.
The new categories which relate to dangerous tackles within ‘Law 10 – Foul Play’ came into with effect from 3 January this year and state:
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/ 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 tackle starts below the line of the shoulders, the player MAY be sanctioned. This includes situations where the ball carrier slips into the tackle.
Minimum sanction: Penalty
In effect the law as it relates to a high tackle remains the same, that is to say the threshold is still the line of the shoulders. What has changed is the severity of punishments for reckless and accidental tackles.
When the immediate introduction of the directives were announced defensive coaches, who have long extolled the virtues of taking man and ball to prevent players off-loading in the tackle, were no doubt concerned of their effect on their defensive strategies. Concern in particular was raised as to the new sanctions guidelines and the possibility of many more yellow and even red cards leading to matches ending with less than 15 players on each side
These concerns appear not to have been misplaced with the weekend’s games, the first since the introduction of the directives, including a red card for Saracen’s Richard Barrington after only 10 minutes, for a tackle that resulted in Leicester’s Geoff Parling being stretchered off with concussion. Interestingly, whilst sent off for a dangerous tackle, Barrington has been charged with dangerous charging contrary to law 10.4(g) whilst Brad Barritt, who was not sanctioned during the game, has been cited for a dangerous tackle contrary to law 10.4(e).
The Pro 12 also saw a number of yellow cards for dangerous tackles with one in particular leading to a penalty try which proved decisive in the Scarlets 16-13 defeat of Ulster.
World Rugby will no doubt argue that these are exactly the sort of incidents it is seeking to address and that the sending off, and no doubt harsher sanctions that will imposed at tonight’s disciplinary hearing, will serve as a deterrent to players in the future.
Rugby remains a physical game with players bigger, stronger and fitter than ever before and the risk of serious injury remains ever present; one only has to look at James Haskell’s 35 second return from injury to know even tackling low is not without risk.
That World Rugby is seeking to address player welfare at this time must be applauded and who knows, with the likely increase in off loads which will result from a lowering of the tackle height, a more expansive free flowing game may flourish.