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How rugby is addressing the tackle height

Ben Kay

I’m going to kick-off my first column for The XV by entering into a subject that is contentious, complex and rife with different interpretations; the tackle height. 

The three points I’m going to cover are; what is World Rugby trying to achieve? Why are tacklers struggling to adjust? And finally, why World Rugby might need to look at the ball-carriers to make the game safer.

World Rugby’s modus operandi

One of the common misconceptions is that World Rugby react to a viral story and Bill Beaumont says, ‘Right guys, bit of bad press, we need to come up with a solution to stop high tackles overnight. I’ve got an idea, let’s try this’. That’s simply not the case. They have adopted a standard scientific approach to making improvements by identifying a problem; collating information and research; forming a hypothesis; testing the hypothesis and analysing the results to see if it positively impacts the problem; and then starting the whole process again, rejecting the parts that don’t work and improving the parts that do.

The main premise of this science-led research is not to completely rid the game of every individual, high-profile, illegal tackle that us pundits replay and discuss over and over again. It is to affect the data by significantly lowering the instances of head injuries in the game by changing the behaviour of players. Thus, when repeated thousands and thousands of times, the tackle becomes safer. 

They know in a sport such as rugby brain trauma can happen even in a perfectly legal situation, for example with the tackler’s head coming into contact with an elbow or a knee, but they’ve been pragmatic and wagered there’s not an awful lot they can do to shift the dial there, not without completely changing the game. 

Billy Twelvetrees
Billy Twelvetrees goes too high with his tackle on Josh Hodge (Photo by Bob Bradford/Getty Images)

The problem area World Rugby suspect they can make a big difference, however, is taking head-on-head impacts away. Everything they’re implementing is about trying to get the tacklers head away from the ball-carrier’s head. 

Simple, eh? Well, not so fast. 

This is not ‘finger in the air’ decision. Until the hypothesis is tested over time and the results analysed we don’t know if there are unintended consequences such as increased instances of injury caused by elbows, knees and hips. It’s all done with historical data. Injury audits have been carried out even since the beginning of my career – so quite a while! 

Some of the data is skewed by the fact we’re more aware of head injuries now, so more are being reported. Fifteen years ago, players wouldn’t mention it, or it wouldn’t be spotted. That was the culture back then. 

A success for World Rugby in this area is looking back over the past three years and seeing there is a reduction in the number of concussions or number of days that players are off the pitch. It is still a work in progress, and they accept that.

Another factor to consider is that in every decision World Rugby make with regards to welfare, they also have to consider how it affects the game being played. People are attracted to the sport because it is a physical competition and although we all love attacking rugby, you still want to get that sweet spot between low-scoring games and basketball scores. The risk in making it harder to defend is it becomes too easy to attack and you dilute the appeal.

Why are players struggling to adjust?

One of the challenges is that, as a game, we’re also trying to reduce the instances of head trauma by decreasing the contact load in training. However, we are asking players to adapt their technique with less opportunity to practise it both at an individual level and in team sessions. As a defender, you’re automatically more upright when you know you’re not finishing off a tackle. We used to call it ‘grip’ training, more than touch but less than actual tackling. Reducing the contact load but allowing players and defensive coaches to check that bodies were in the right place to actually make an effective tackle.

In essence, it is chest on chest (exactly the type of tackle World Rugby are trying to eliminate) but if you go into proper tackle heights in this sort of training the physics around balance means as a tackler you are compelled to follow through with the shoulder and put someone on the deck. That’s part of the problem. We are trying to unpick training behaviour instilled for 20 years and being told to tackle in a specific way. It takes time.

I have sympathy for the players because even though we’ve been told we can’t do that anymore; the whole point of elite performance is a motor memory that becomes second nature, particularly under fatigue. A lot of players who are adapting quicker are those who are executing tackles they already felt more comfortable doing, like the specialist chop tacklers. The guys who are struggling are those who were hitting at ball height and using their power to knock players back over their centre of gravity.

Take Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell. They are used to someone coming out towards their inside shoulder, so they’ll have an inside tackler who makes the chop and their job is to check the attacker coming into their channel but not commit fully so they can get still get back out into the line for the next phase or if the ball is passed.

In his early years, the stats said Owen used to miss a lot of tackles for Saracens but it wasn’t a problem because he’d done his job. What he was trying to do is bounce players back inside so the ‘Wolfpack’, players like Jacques Burger, could chew them up. He just wanted to put a shoulder on them so they couldn’t get outside his channel. That’s how he has grown up defending and if he changes that to a low chop-type tackle, he can’t recover to do his next role anywhere near as effectively.

George North
Owen Farrell has been coached to slow up a ball-carrier for a back row to chop (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)

The armchair pundit will say, ‘It’s easy, just tackle lower,’ but another complexity is you often don’t know who you’re going to tackle until the last second because the attack is doing everything they can to overload your decision-making process with multiple runners. When you are in a low body position (like you are when you commit to a chop tackle), it is very difficult to maintain any sort of agility if you suddenly need to adapt to a different ball-carrier. So, instinctively, when defenders are in any doubt their height rises slightly.

In a game you’re trying to weigh up the most likely options so you can make a dominant tackle when at the last millisecond something unpredictable happens and you change your tackle selection. 

One of the big problems with high tackles used to be getting sidestepped on the inside and leaving your arm up for a clothes-line tackle. It’s a natural reaction. A bit like someone who leaves their hand up for a deliberate knock-on. Reaction speeds are massive for the tackler because, in rugby, the name of the game is outwitting your opposition.

When we train or coach kids, you try to get them to dictate the contact; to shape their body in the metres before contact to try to manoeuvre the carrier where you want them. Players often stay on their inside and make the tackle with the shoulder they want to. If you drift someone into the position you want them, you accelerate and complete the tackle. It’s something Joe Marler did perfectly with his tackle on Callum Sheedy at the weekend. The ideal height to tackle is above the knee and below the ball to prevent injuries.

Again, that’s the perfect world. I remember playing against Sébastien Bruno for France in the Six Nations. I thought I had him where I wanted him but he deliberately sidestepped into my head. The result was that I lost all power in the tackle because of the shift in balance at the last moment. It messed up my instinct and became dangerous. If the impact point of the tackle is going to be different to what you’re expecting, your targeting is off and that’s a major dilemma for the tackler.

Often when a tackler realises he has made a mistake it’s too late and instinctively trying to rectify it actively makes things worse. When you race forwards at pace and you try to stop you naturally try to lean back to brake and this makes you more upright.

Addressing the ball-carrier

One area I feel World Rugby might need to address is the ball-carrier. Obviously we still want the ball-carrier to beat a defender but every law change World Rugby make can have unintended consequences elsewhere. Rugby is an evolution. Every time there’s a rule change, a coach will analyse it to see how they can get an advantage. Rugby goes around in circles, once something becomes prevalent, everyone works out how to nullify it and you move on to something else.

That’s the conundrum World Rugby have. If they make a law change that’s a pretty permanent thing to do. How they adapt is by giving referees freedom as a group to interpret the laws slightly differently. We talk to the referees quite a bit at BT Sport, so we know what they’re looking for and asking from players and coaches. I think World Rugby have to look at law interpretations and law changes to make the ball-carrier’s head go the other way. 

At the moment, we know the best position is to go low because you need less of a target above your centre of gravity, coupled with the fact the floor is the safety net for getting the ball back as the opposition have to release. The worst thing that can happen in rugby is you get caught in an upright position, knocked back and held up. Bang, turnover. Very costly.

At a pick-and-go around the ruck, a front rower who is used to being strong in that crouching position is used to having his nose on the floor and staying up. They often step out of a ruck, effectively curl up in a ball so the tackler has no momentum or area to hit and then the use their scrummaging strength to lift the guy up and get their leg-drive going through the defender. The ball-carrier carries with the head almost on the floor. So as a tackler, where do you hit? 

David Ribbans
David Ribbans reacts after being sent off for a high tackle on a stooping Luke Cowan-Dickie (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

When the high tackle started being refereed as it is now, we spoke to referees and did a demo on BT Sport with Wayne Barnes. He said he wouldn’t penalise a tackler if the ball-carrier had chosen to dip and his head was near on the floor. It’s the ball-carrier’s decision. For years I’ve had an issue with attackers dipping into contact and two instances spring to mind; Ugo Monye got a neck injury playing against Scotland and Thom Evans got a serious neck injury playing against Wales. Both of them dropped their heads and ended up in hospital. 

If you’re looking at getting the heads away from each other, the choke tackle encourages upright tackling and chest on chest, which in turn encourages the ball-carrier to run in lower because he’s worried about getting held up. I don’t have a problem with head above hips, or level with the hips, it’s when the head is down as Luke Cowan-Dickie did against Northampton a few weeks ago that’s dangerous. Why should the responsibility just be on the tackler? He has got a hard enough job because he’s reacting to what the ball-carrier is doing.

Another misconception when we get angry watching high tackles is that it’s the ball-carrier who is most at risk but it’s the opposite. If you think about the hard bits on someone’s body, it’s the shins, ankles, the boots and the hips – the tackler has a higher proportion of head injuries rather than the ball-carrier. World Rugby, in following the data, will actually be trying to protect the tackler, not the ball-carrier. 

Gaining a competitive advantage

One more point, elite-level sport is about finding an edge and winning at all costs. No matter how much we eulogise about our sport and its values, it’s all within the confines of professional sport. Personally, I think referees are doing a great job, especially in the Premiership. The way they’re talking and explaining their rationale in a calm and measured manner is beneficial to the players coaches and fans. 

One problem starting to emerge is that even if there’s the tiniest infringement, there is a clamour for it to be looked at. Players grab their head when they get caught to make sure it’s spotted by the TMO. How do you stop that? It’s back to unintended consequences again. These changes are meant to see improvements in player welfare but we have to be very careful they are not hijacked for competitive advantage.

A data-led approach is the right way to go. Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick are using data analysts to shape the way they play, asking, ‘What’s the most likely way we’re going to win the game?’ and World Rugby are looking at the most likely way of reducing the brain injuries so we have a game for future generations.

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