Paul Williams wants changes at the contact area to stop dangerous cleanouts

Opinion: Rugby must slow down the breakdown

Rugby evolves, it always has. Over the past decade the sport has changed at a speed only beaten by the UK’s recent run in Prime Ministers. The way we watch the game has changed, the way the game is refereed has changed and we have seen rugby become a game not just for men but for all.

However, the biggest changes are yet to come. In some ways it’s easy to change league structures and tweak the media mix; those things can be altered in a season or two. But changing the way that the game is played at a fundamental level is different.

Slowing down the breakdown and removing the threat of dangerous cleanouts means altering one of rugby’s core mechanics. And altering the attitudes of players and supporters will be harder than a squad of fully-armed super zombies coached by Shaun Edwards.

Rugby, largely thanks to the Sam Warburton red card at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, has slowly eradicated the spear tackle from the game, and the past two seasons have seen a greater appreciation of what is required for a safe tackle. Twenty five years ago, for instance, a high shot to the neck would be regarded as a rugby incident and a penalty deemed a suitable punishment.

But if there’s one area of the game where supporters and players seem unable to give any ground, it’s in regard to the breakdown. For some reason, player safety at the breakdown isn’t deemed as important as with tackles or high balls.

Against Japan we saw All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick red-carded for a ridiculous cleanout on Kazuki Himeno, and he subsequently received a two-match ban.

Zebre’s MJ Pelser was also sent off for a cleanout against Edinburgh and banned for three matches. The two cleanouts were incredibly reckless.

While both incidents were different in execution and force, they both have one thing in common: they were pointless. The ball was won by the opposition and there was nothing legal that could be done to change it.

It is at this point where rugby’s internal arguments really begin. “How was he supposed to remove the player over the ball, if he doesn’t cleanout like that?” is the classic question.

The answer is you don’t. Once a ruck is lost, it’s lost. Player’s don’t have a legislative right to contest rucks at all costs. There is a point where a ruck is lost, and people need to get used to that.

Another regular response to the issue is: “My coach won’t be happy if I don’t hit the ruck, I’ll be dropped”. But that argument no longer makes sense. Hitting unwinnable rucks at stupid speeds is the opposite of what a modern coach wants from his players, as the result is often a penalty at best or a red card and a massive ban at worst.

It’s almost as if players feel they have to look busy at the breakdown, even if the battle is lost, so that they don’t get a wrist slap in the video review. The Pelser incident is a great example of this. The attempted cleanout required Pelser to hit one player, onto another, onto the scrum-half, to make any impression on the quality of the ball.

When discussing changes in rugby, of course we have to think of their impact on the game. Whenever a simple change is made, the consequences are often unpredictable and sometimes have the opposite intention. Making the ball more easily contestable, for example, in the late 2000s didn’t lead to more open rugby, it led to more kicking as the ball wasn’t just easy to win but also to lose.

Many will worry that changing the approach at the breakdown, and simply conceding possession when the opposition are safely ‘parked’ over the ball, will have a detrimental effect on the sport. But it may also have massive benefits beyond the safety issues.

If ‘parking’ over the ball safely, first and at speed, means that possession is retained more easily, it could lead to the selection of smaller, faster forwards who get there first. Smaller players would, of course, reduce impacts in other areas of the game.

Rugby does adapt quickly and there’s plenty of evidence to support this. But there seems to be a reluctance around changes at the breakdown that isn’t there for other aspects of the game. Either way, rugby must slow down at the contact area. Otherwise, the breakdown will no longer just refer to a part of rugby’s mechanics but also the future health of players.

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