Leo Cullen bemused by focus on new head injury laws

Leo Cullen has shrugged off the much vaunted new World Rugby laws relating to head contact, by suggesting nothing has changed with regard to how he’ll coach his team.
Leo Cullen bemused by focus on new head injury laws

The Leinster boss was speaking ahead of tonight’s Guinness PRO12 clash with Zebre, where the province will be one of the first senior teams to play under the new regulations.

The global governing body have stepped up their efforts to promote a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to illegal high tackles, increasing sanctions in a bid to deter them and prevent serious injury to players.

A yellow card is now the minimum on-field sanction for a reckless [high] tackle, with a maximum of red, while the minimum on-field sanction for an accidental [high] tackle will be a penalty.

Ed Morrison, independent referees commissioner for the Pro12, welcomed the moves by World Rugby.

“For over a year, players have been aware they are at risk of receiving a card if they go near the head or the neck and World Rugby has asked that officials are extremely vigilant when it comes to foul play. The goal is to lower the height of the tackle and change the culture, with regard to reckless and accidental contact with the head,” Morrison said.

But Cullen, who named Johnny Sexton in his team for the first time since October, appeared bemused by the attention the laws have attracted.

“I don’t think it’s a drastic change, all it is is enforcing you can’t tackle high, but you couldn’t tackle high before. So there’s no change,” he said.

“What’s the change? So you can’t tackle around the neck? It was the same last year, if you hit up, you have to have that responsibility, so... nothing has changed there. The collisions in the air — same thing.

“I just think there was a lot of attention post Ireland v New Zealand and that’s why it was in the media so much. Certain things happened in that game, that players got away with, weren’t sanctioned during or after the game and hence, it increased the focus on it.

“Nothing has changed drastically, you can’t tackle around the neck, but you weren’t allowed to do that last year, or the year before.”

Some former players have argued the changes are diluting the physical game they grew up with, but Cullen believes the game was always likely to change in the professional era.

“There’s greater scrutiny than there was before, I mean there’s no real place for dirty play or cynical play, there’s no role for it anymore, that’s a positive,” Cullen said.

“The game, as a professional game, is still young. We’re adapting and trying to improve. There have been lots of tweaks, the tackle is a big thing now, before it might have been how to improve the scrum; the hit was taken out of the scrum, pre-binding came in.

"All along, there are tweaks to different parts and aspects of the game. Think back 30 years ago, there was no lifting in the lineout, how has that changed the game.”

All eyes will be focused tonight on the return of Sexton, who has not played since the controversial game with New Zealand in November.

Ireland boss Joe Schmidt demanded a period of rest for the out-half, following yet another hamstring injury, and the No 10 has spent the last month training in Santry’s Sports Clinic with a focus on increasing his resistance to hamstring injuries. Captaining a much-changed side to the one that beat Ulster last weekend, Sexton is unlikely to play more than a half ahead of next week’s crunch Champions Cup clash with Montpellier.

“Time will tell, won’t it? Time will tell,” Cullen said of how ‘robust’ Sexton now is.

“His strength has increased during his time on the sideline, so we’ll see how he progresses.

“He’s come through training well and he’s trained well over the last couple of weeks. It’s a good gradual progression into playing again. With what’s coming up, it was important to take a more conservative course of action.

"You can always try and push guys back at various stages and I think time will tell how good this period has been for the player. But he’s in good spirits, has trained well and is looking forward to get back playing.”

LEINSTER:

Z Kirchner; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, R O’Loughlin, J Sexton (capt), L McGrath; C Healy, J Treacy, M Bent, D Toner, H Triggs, D Leavy, S O’Brien, J Conan.

Replacements:

S Cronin, J McGrath, T Furlong, R Ruddock, J Heaslip, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, N Reid.

ZEBRE:

K Baker, M Bellini, M Pratichetti, T Castello, L Greeff; E Padovani, M Violi; A Lovotti, T D’Apice, P Ceccarelli, G Koegelenberg, G Biagi (capt), D Minnie, F Ruzza, A Van Schalkwyk.

Replacements:

C Festuccia, A De Marchi, G Roan, J Furno, M Mbandà, G Palazzani, G Venditti, S Bordol.

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