DONAL LENIHAN: Tackling interpretations now deciding match outcomes

For the second week in a row, the quality of rugby on offer across the Heineken Champions Cup pool fixtures has been overshadowed by decisions made by referees and their interpretation of tackling laws, writes Donal Lenihan

The dilemma facing officials at present was best summarised by the call made by promising Irish referee Andrew Brace in issuing a yellow card to former New Zealand World Cup winner Jerome Kaino for a collision with Bath’s Jamie Roberts in their opening round game against Toulouse.

BT Sports’ co-commentary team of Austin Healey and David Flatman were solidly of the view that Kaino just stood his ground and that Roberts ran straight into the teak-tough No 8, not a good idea at the best of times, even for a player as imposing as the Lions centre.

The two former England internationals were at one in claiming the incident didn’t even warrant a penalty as Roberts dipped his head and charged into the New Zealander. Subsequently cited, Kaino was forced to sit out last Sunday’s clash against Leinster after he was suspended for five weeks by EPCR’s disciplinary committee who viewed the incident as a red card offence.

The fact that three different parties held three different views on the matter demonstrates the challenge facing the match officials at present.

Is it any wonder there is a lack of consistency in adjudicating on such matters, and that Toulouse are contemplating appealing the suspension to Kaino?

Some calls are more clearcut than others, such as the decision to red card Castres’ No.8 Maama Vaipulu for his high and dangerous hit on Luke Cowan-Dickie last weekend. The Exeter hooker didn’t even have the ball at the time and the shoulder contact to the jaw was clear and obvious.

The purists are giving out, claiming that the game is gone soft. A few weeks ago interim Leicester Tigers coach Geordan Murphy had to issue an apology and a retraction for saying that “the game has gone too PC” after his second row Will Spencer was sent off for a shoulder hit to the head of a Wasps’ player.

The evidence would suggest the game is anything but. The collisions are getting ever more forceful as the bodyshapes of rugby players has changed dramatically since becoming full-time professional athletes.

The fact that Wasps’ hooker Tommy Taylor was unharmed and didn’t require a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) after the incident with Spencer was irrelevant. With time to reflect, Murphy realised his comments were misplaced and made in the heat of the moment.

The advent of specialist defence coaches in the late 1990s, in most cases from the league code, resulted in tweaks in the nuances of the tackle, with new innovations and variations being introduced.

Former Ireland defence coach Les Kiss, another import from rugby league, was widely credited with the introduction of the choke tackle, designed to hold up the tackled player thus forcing a turnover by means of a scrum to the defending side.

This initiative played a major role in Ireland’s Grand Slam success in 2009 under Declan Kidney and was quickly adopted by other teams.

In an effort to stop sides offloading out of the tackle, players were also coached to go higher in the tackle, wrapping the arms around the ball carrier, thus preventing the offload.

The net result of these refinements is that players are entering the tackle situation with their heads more exposed. In mini rugby in clubs across the country, young boys and girls are taught to tackle low by dropping their knees, tucking their head in behind the buttocks of the ball carrier as a means of bringing even bigger players to ground.

The professional game deviated from that approach some time ago and the height of the tackle increased dramatically with catastrophic consequences, with studies confirming that 76% of all head injuries requiring concussion tests occur in the tackle.

The sport’s governing body, World Rugby, no doubt concerned about the prospect of a class action down the road similar to the successful one brought by former players in the NFL in 2017, has decided to act in terms of new approaches and laws around tackling.

There will be more controversy on the way, with consistency in the decision-making process still an issue at present but the intent, as clearly stated by the law makers, is to reduce the height of the tackle.

This action is being taken for the greater good of the game, with player safety the central tenet.

European Professional Club Rugby’s (EPCR) referee manager Joel Jutge made it absolutely clear when issuing a directive at the outset of this season’s European competitions that there would be zero tolerance to high tackles.

Any contact, regardless of circumstances, made to the head of the tackled player by the shoulder of the tackler is a red card offence.

The challenge for the officials is that it leaves no scope to apply common sense. One could argue that Danny Cipriani was backing out of the tackle on Rory Scannell on Saturday and that there was no intent on his part. Intent however is irrelevent in these scenarios.

Despite the directive, inconsistencies abound. Quite how Billy Twelvetrees escaped any sanction other than a penalty for his high hit on Joey Carbery, which was even more obvious than Cipriani’s action, only served to add fuel to the argument.

Munster were far from blameless either with CJ Stander fortunate to escape the attention of officials for one high hit while Stephen Archer was also sanctioned for a silly tackle.

Despite the outcry, one suspects that more games will be decided over the coming weeks and months by such calls as players come to terms with the concept of dropping their body height in the tackle.

The problem is that players are required to react instinctively to the situation they find themselves in, and old habits die hard. What needs to be acknowledged is that player safety is of far greater importance while, in time, the prospect of freeing one’s hands in the tackle might also lead to greater continuity in attack and a better spectacle.

We are only two months into the competitive season but already I have been forced to comment, far too often, on the injury blight on the game at present.

Saturday’s victory came with a serious price for Munster with the luckless Tommy O’Donnell, Dan Goggin, and possibly even Rhys Marshall all likely to be out of the game for some time.

Leinster’s defeat only served to highlight just how difficult it is to win on the road in France, a point made forcibly by Racing 92 against Ulster in Paris and by Munster’s next opponents Castres against Exeter Chiefs.

Just as well therefore that Munster contest the first of their back-to-back contests in Limerick when the tournament recommences in December.

With four internationals to come in the November test window prior to that, one wonders how many front-liners will be left standing by then.

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