Rugby Player ScoringThe November Internationals have made for some interesting viewing, not just for the fans, but the neutrals too. Japan were only just beaten with a drop goal in the dying minutes by Wales in Cardiff.  England continued their winning streak under Eddie Jones, despite playing Argentina with a man down for the majority of the match.  South Africa repeated their Japan moment from last year, losing to Italy for the first time in their history.

And speaking of history, you will forgive an Irishman mentioning Ireland’s first ever win over the All Blacks…

I will stay on the subject of Ireland v New Zealand, but not simply to relive Ireland’s greatest win in history. Rather, to explore some interesting questions about tackling and the physical nature of rugby which arose from the rematch in Dublin on 19 November.  New Zealand won the rematch 21-9 but for most of the match it was a battle of the walking wounded.

Malakai Fekitoa scored the first try for New Zealand within the first five minutes, with blood already drawn from a cut on his forehead. Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, CJ Stander (Ireland) and Sam Cane (New Zealand) were all substituted through injury before 25 minutes had passed.  Further injuries followed.

While injuries can happen in any number of ways, a sport will try to use rules and regulations to reduce the risk. Two incidents in particular have led to some calls for tackle laws to be changed.

Both Cane and Fekitoa were cited following the game for alleged dangerous tackles.  Both were penalised during the game, with Fekitoa taking a trip to the sin bin for his high tackle on Simon Zebo.  Cane was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing, but Fekitoa received a one week ban.  Interestingly, it was Cane’s tackle that had the more serious consequence on the pitch, with Robbie Henshaw being stretchered off with a head injury after being knocked unconscious.  He went on to miss the win over Australia on 26 November, which also featured a large number of Irish injuries.

Unsurprisingly, there was criticism in Ireland, although a good share of it was aimed at the laws of the game rather than the All Blacks specifically.

The relevant law that both Cane and Fekitoa were said to have transgressed is Law 10.4(e):

  • Dangerous tackling. A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously.
  • A player must not tackle (or try to tackle) an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. A tackle around the opponent’s neck or head is dangerous play.
  • A ‘stiff-arm tackle’ is dangerous play. A player makes a stiff-arm tackle when using a stiff-arm to strike an opponent.
  • Playing a player without the ball is dangerous play.
  • A player must not tackle an opponent whose feet are off the ground.

Looking at this law, there are certainly grey areas regarding what is permissible and what is not. For example, what is “dangerously”?  When is “early”/”late”?  Does the intention of the tackler matter?  If a player tackles an opponent above the line of the shoulders as a result of the opponent ducking into the tackle, what happens?  There are a lot of questions that are necessarily left to the interpretation of those applying the Law, the referees and television match officials.  Tackling in the air is a particularly tricky area, as Elliot Daly found to his cost at the weekend.

Yet, on the other hand, part of the beauty of the game is the uncertainty of events that unfold within the eighty minutes. Is it practical to expect the relevant Laws on tackling to cover all possible eventualities?

World Rugby recently asked referees to be stricter in policing the dangerous tackle.  However, some think this is not enough and that it puts too much pressure on instant interpretation.   Interpreting wording and applying it to specific facts can be difficult.  That difficulty is multiplied with the added pressure of tens of thousands of hollering fans, millions watching from home and the pressure added by the team captains.

World Rugby is also currently considering whether to change the rules so that young rugby players would be banned from tackling players above the waist, an attempt to reduce the desire to put in the ‘big hit’ and reduce the risk of concussion.  It may not be totally out of the question to see this considered at all levels of rugby, if it has the desired effect.

However, this would be a very significant change to the game. Given the huge amount of room for interpretation in the current laws, a compromising step may be to add more detail to the laws as they stand.  Reducing the uncertainty within those laws could make it easier for referees to police them consistently (though more difficult to learn, granted), and therefore apply the level of strictness that World Rugby wants.

With the eligibility debate also continuing (which we have noted here), rugby union has some thinking to do.