Don't write off the base of the sternum just yet, writes Paul Williams
Rugby needs fewer knee-jerk reactions and more open arms when it comes to embracing the new tackle height and law changes that are aimed at increasing the safety of players and the future sustainability of the game.
April saw the RFU adopt a radical, but necessary, change to the laws affecting tackling in the amateur game. From July, all tackles must be below the base of the sternum, except in a ‘pick and go’ scenario.
Given that the new tackle height, proposed as an opt-in global trial by World Rugby, is likely to drastically alter the way the game is played, it is no surprise there have been so many knee-jerk reactions.
Firstly, these laws are much needed. Modern rugby clearly has a problem with concussion. If you aren’t aware of at least three players who have had their life spun upside down by concussion, then you probably aren’t watching enough rugby.
Rugby at all levels, pro and amateur, can’t carry on as it is. The fallout both medically and legally will be enormous and something that is beyond debate.
It’s also worth remembering that these changes aren’t just being brought in to, as some perceive, ruin the enjoyment of rugby for the hardcore of players who are in their late 20s and early 30s.
Read more: RFU apologises for initial ‘waist height’ announcement
The game obviously needs these players as they form the bulk of current squads. But most of those players will stop playing in under ten years. And whether they like it or not, rugby must try and find a way to exist beyond the next decade when those 30-year-olds have long quit rugby, bought a £5k road bike and started pounding rural roads.
But the new law isn’t as grim as many would have you believe. As with all tweaks in rugby, you can hit ‘ctrl-z’ at the end of the season, or even mid-season, should it be required.
It happens all the time in rugby. That’s the beauty of the game. Such are the complexities of the sport, that new laws are required every 12 months. If they don’t work, they can be amended immediately.
The amount of scaremongering surrounding the outcome of the new laws has also been vastly overplayed. All that we’ve heard about are the negatives. Yet we never hear about the positives.
With the tackle line beneath the sternum, the arms will be freer for offloads. And like it or not passing is as key to rugby as tackling. With the arms freed, the offload will be far easier to execute, which will mean that defenders must focus on the supporting players, not just the carrier – which will also reduce the likelihood of a double tackle.
Related: Do we need a new tackle height?
Reducing the number of double tackles in the game would be fantastic. In a game where collisions are often compared to being in a small car crash, why would you want to be hit by two Fiat 500’s when you could be hit by just one.
New tackle height will increase exciting offloading
It is also with regards to offloading where the scaremongering has reached 1980’s Halloween level – where all parents were terrified of their children eating an apple just in case it had a razor blade jammed inside it.
According to some of the old school, the new tackle laws will allow carriers to run into contact, with their arms held straight up in the air, like they’re at a 70’s disco in New York – and offload or pass with impunity.
You try running into an amateur No 8, with your arms in the air, and your sternum exposed- you’ll be winded in an instant and making the same noise as a broken vacuum cleaner.
The other benefit is the greater fitness required. If you can only tackle low, with the increased risk of an offload, the number of incomplete or missed tackles will increase. Which is great for game.
Missed tackles aren’t a rugby nightmare, they’re a dream. Missed tackles create space and line breaks, which require fitter players to repair the damage once the break is made or the space is found.
Fitter players tend to be leaner and smaller which will further reduce the concussion risk and broader impacts in the collision.
But by far the most important positive aspect of this change (beyond reduced concussion obviously) is the ability to still put in massive hits. Just because you can’t hit the upper chest doesn’t mean you can’t safely smash your opponent.
Have a look at London Irish’s So’otala Fa’aso’o’s tackle on Hugh Tizard in the English Premiership a few weeks ago. Granted it is debatable whether it was slightly above the sternum as recommended by the RFU, but it shows that you don’t have to hit the upper chest in order to level a player like a block of 1960’s council flats. Prior to about 1990, ball/ chest tackles weren’t even a thing in union – they were a rugby league tackle.
Back then ankle taps were something to be marvelled at. And big hits involved the ball carrier being cut in half at the waist, not chopped in 2/3 rds just below the neck.
It’s also discordant that many of the same people who are against this change also think rugby was better 30 years ago – when tackling was largely attacking the waist and below.
So, was it better then or now? Make up your mind.
And then of course there are those who just like to moan regardless. Whether it’s paying 5p for a plastic shopping bag, or not being able to say certain words that were acceptable in the 1960s, they’ll always find something to gripe about and most importantly let you know they’re not happy about it.
No-one knows whether these laws will work. We never do with any law change. But it’s worth a shot. And we must all give it our best to help the process along.
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