Rugby is struggling to get its head around the tackle

Rugby is struggling to get its head around the tackle
Confusion over what is and isn’t acceptable tackling has been a theme of the World Cup. England’s Billy Vunipola, pictured being tackled by Argentina’s Benjamín Urdapilleta on Saturday, was lucky to avoid a red card for his tackle on Emiliano Boffelli in the same game. Picture: Getty

Find something you feel as passionate about as Andy Farrell when he talks about defence, and breaks it down into the intricacies of tackle height and technique and head positioning, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

The Ireland assistant coach talks like he played, with a directness and an honesty that makes him an engaging interviewee, but the words tumbled out of his mouth that bit quicker, and for that much longer, as he spoke at length here about the changing face of rugby collisions. Farrell has plenty of skin in this game.

Two of the record number of reds at this tournament have been earned by players — John Quill of the USA and Argentina’s Tomás Lavanini — for high and/or late tackles on his own son and England star Owen. Add in his own passion for ‘D’, and he was ready to hit the ground running.

“It’s all about the decision before the actual contact itself,” he explained.

Exhibit A: Chris Farrell missed the Russia game after failing a HIA against Japan in Shizuoka. The Munster centre took a bang to the head with his elbow because he had turned his head to the side in making the tackle and, so, couldn’t see what was in front of him at the moment that matters.

“If I lead with my head and get it through [past the opponent’s chest] then my head’s out of the way and that’s what we need to be coaching kids. One hundred per cent. I liken it to skiing when you go over the top on a ski slope.

“When you first start skiing, or you’re trying to teach a kid how to ski, the hardest thing to do is say, ‘no, you’ve got to lean forward’. You’ve got to lean forward because all your control is at the front. That’s how you shift around and that’s how you brake, but it takes courage to do that.

Proper technique, in my opinion, to make sure we’re looking after players, is making sure that we get the head through and not to the side because if it’s to the side then you’re vulnerable.

Farrell explained all this in a manner that loses some of its zip in print but tackle technique, and what is and is not acceptable any more, has been a central theme running right through this tournament, along with the humidity, ball handling, and scores off cross-kicks.

There has been little to no consistency among referees on this contentious issue, and World Rugby even issued a remarkable missive in the early stages admitting that officiating standards had not been up to the required standard.

Head coaches are not permitted to meet with referees to discuss priorities over interpretations, as is the case in other test windows. Michael Cheika, the Australia coach, was especially strident in his criticism after his side’s defeat to Wales in Tokyo late last month.

“As a rugby player, a former player, I am embarrassed here,” he said after Samu Kerevi was penalised for a raised forearm that slid up after contact in the wake of Rhys Patchell’s appallingly awkward and upright attempt at a tackle.

“You have got to look after players, but not to the extreme where you are doing so just for the doctors and lawyers. I do not understand any more. The referees all seem spooked and everyone is worried, except the players. Then it affects everything else on the field.”

Cheika’s stance on this subject was weakened considerably when it turned out that Reece Hodge, who was banned for three matches for his high shoulder hit on Fiji’s Peceli Yato, ‘had no knowledge’ of World Rugby’s new tackle framework.

But the Wallaby coach is right about the general confusion given the variety of interpretations witnessed. Lavanini’s red, for instance, was followed shortly after by a dangerously high tackle by Billy Vunipola on Emiliano Boffelli — yet Nigel Owens deemed that worthy only of a penalty.

Changing the culture among players who need to set themselves ever lower, and referees, will take time. It may be that the really significant and epochal shift in technique and understanding of the new realities given that the dangers of concussion comes from those further down the pyramid.

“Kids need to be taught constantly of being comfortable with what the proper technique is,” said Farrell. “It certainly isn’t throwing kids in there with their heads down and then getting kicked on the head and going, ‘I don’t know about this game’. Proper technique (is crucial).

It’s like anything. When you hit a golf ball sweet in the middle, you go, ‘wow that was fantastic’. When you get a tackle right it’s because you’ve got your head through and a square shoulder. You’ve not tackled with your arm and you get good contact and it feels right, it doesn’t hurt.

None of which makes the picture any clearer here and now. Lavanini’s dismissal brought to five the number of red cards shown. That’s a record for any World Cup. There was only one brandished in England four years ago, and there had been no more than two per tournament stretching back to the 1999 edition. And there are still 20 games to go.

It’s not a record that Farrell is happy to have seen broken.

“I don’t like seeing anyone get a red card. I feel really sorry for them. I’ve grown up watching all sorts of world cups and any type of major event, somebody that ends up with devastation where they’re out of any competition they’re in, I think it’s sad to see.

"Everyone is aware of the ramifications of getting something wrong. Are you in control of that all the time? Not really, because rugby is an instinctive game.”

But it’s one that has changed and needs to keep changing. Farrell himself played rugby league in an era when the shoulder charge would hardly raise an eyebrow — but that too has changed, as he saw on Sunday when he sat down to watch the Roosters claim back-to-back NRL titles.

“It’s a little bit different,” he said with a smile.


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