World Rugby implemented new ‘tackle laws’ (in reality they are not new laws but new instructions on how to enforce the laws) regarding tackling earlier this year. The changes focus on ‘reckless tackles’ and ‘accidental tackles’ and while the intentions are good the rules will have negative impacts on the game.
By Kimber Rozier CSCS, Pn1 – World Rugby’s decision to crack down on dangerous tackles with new tackle laws has created controversy among coaches, players, and fans and will put referees in a precarious position. The changes are seen as either a concussion-saving genius or gawking at some of the cards awarded and resulting bans.
Player welfare needs to be at the forefront of the game, however, the recent amendments will cause more trouble than they’re worth.
It should be noted that this discussion is a combination of my own opinion and consultation with a few established referees. While I highly respect and champion World Rugby for addressing head injury and concussion, I am intrigued by how these amendments will be enforced and the negative impact I’ve already seen them have on players.
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, World Rugby has amended some of Law 5, concerning the legality and safety of tackling. The changes are as follows:
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
It seems this is an attempted step in the right direction to make rugby safer. But what did World Rugby have to consider that necessitated this course of action? According to the World Rugby website, law changes are considered based on these principles:
- Player welfare, especially concussion, is the number-one priority
- The laws must allow for a fair contest for possession, especially in the contact area, in general play and when play is restarted at scrums, lineouts and kick-offs
- The game remains a sport for all shapes and sizes, for men and women, and for boys and girls
- The unique identities of the game must be maintained, including the scrum, lineout, ruck, maul, tackle, kick-off and restarts
- Any changes must promote enjoyment for participants and entertainment for spectators and must be in line with World Rugby’s core values of passion, respect, integrity, discipline and solidarity
- The laws must be applicable by match officials
- The game should be as easy to understand as possible for players, coaches, match officials and spectators
Right, so let’s break this down.
Player welfare, especially concussion, is the number-one priority.
As already stated, player welfare and concussion are the most important aspects to manage with the law. No one’s saying they aren’t to be refereed. But there’s inherent risk of contact with the head in any contact sport.
In efforts to not get carded, players will go more carefully into contact. They will be hesitant to make dominant tackles and be wary of plowing through rucks. And when are we most likely to get hurt? When we’re lazy or nervous around the contact area. Our core isn’t braced, we’re at an odd angle, or we fall awkwardly. I honestly believe it’ll cause more injury. Football added helmets to “help”, and we all know how that turned out.
The laws must allow for a fair contest for possession, especially in the contact area, in general play and when play is restarted at scrums, lineouts and kick-offs
If tacklers are forced to be extra careful, where does that leave the ball carrier? What’s to say they aren’t going to start using THEIR heads as battering rams, leaving defenders with no choice but to scrag or let them run by? A minimum of a penalty is awarded against a tackler who makes contact with the head even if the ball carrier slips into the tackle. Which brings up another topic of concern…
The act of “diving” – something that pervades soccer matches and has crept into rugby. And it needs to go. Fortunately, World Rugby has nipped that in the bud with this statement –
“Play acting or “simulation” will be specifically outlawed in the game in a move that formalises resistance to a practice that has been creeping into the game in recent years. Any player who dives or feigns injury in an effort to influence the match officials will be liable for sanction.”
If you’re following, the ref is now responsible for knowing the intent of the ball carrier and the tackler. Which brings us to principle six…
The laws must be applicable by match officials
Did the tackler know they would probably collide with the ball carrier’s head? Did the ball carrier intentionally dive into the tackle? Refs are now expected to be mind readers. All of these judgments are made in the split second before the ruck is formed and the ball moves away. Which is hard without the use of TMO.
And what domestic club match has a television match official? Most club matches are lucky if they have touch judges.
I heard reports of a player who received a seven week ban because of a red card they received due to the lack of TMO. The official binned this player for their foot making contact with another player’s head in the ruck. It didn’t happen, but the touch judges and center ref couldn’t come to a firm agreement. Since no video was present that could deny the ruling on the field, this player was banned for 7 weeks for a reckless tackle, missing several important test matches along the way.
How many times have you been kicked in the head at the bottom of a ruck by your own teammate? It happens all the time, but since “the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent”… boom. Red card.
Cases such as this aren’t necessarily the fault of the referee. They are just doing their best to interpret and enforce the law as it’s stated. Which brings us to the final principle.
The game should be as easy to understand as possible for players, coaches, match officials and spectators
Based on the fast pace of the game and the subjectivity of intent, officials are left with one option – guess. And as always with a new law, they will err on the side of caution.
If the rulings lean a little too far, it disrupts the flow of the game. Let’s not forget the reason we all play rugby. It’s even written in the aforementioned principles – to promote enjoyment for participants and spectators. I’m sure World Rugby has weighed the safety of its participants against excitement, but a game full of cards seems contradictory.
Refs, players and coaches alike have to work together to make these laws work for everyone. I believe the tackle amendments are made out of the best intentions. However, they breed hesitation in players and put way too much pressure on officials to pull out their cards. Working out the kinks over this next year will be interesting to say the least.
What do you think about the new tackle laws? Do you think it will change the game for your club?
Kimber Rozier is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union, and now has returned home as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C.