After Rassie Erasmus and Warren Gatland's war of words, what is the history behind the England captain's tackle tecnhique?

The debate behind Owen Farrell’s tackle technique

Following Warren Gatland’s complaints about Faf de Klerk’s high tackle against the British & Irish Lions, Springbok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has shone the light back on the tourists. 

Replying to an article in the Irish Examiner in which Gatland asks for ‘clarity’ and ‘consistency’ in refereeing, Erasmus tweeted “While you at it please get clarity on this also !! penalty or play on ? We have to be 100% sure and aligned! Can’t agree more”, attaching two videos of Owen Farrell tackles. 

One of these videos appears to show Farrell’s shoulder making contact with the head of No 8 Jasper Wiese, while the second depicts a swinging arm around the neck of de Klerk after the whistle. 

This isn’t the first time Erasmus has criticised Farrell’s tackle technique. The Springboks coach was caught on video satirically teaching his players how to mirror Farrell’s method, after the England captain tackled South Africa centre Andre Esterhuizen with a technique that drew plenty of criticism for not using the arms, but ultimately drew no sanction from the powers that be in a 2018 Test. 

Farrell hits in a ‘rugby league style’, which involves tackling upright with a rapidly swinging shoulder, in which the arm wraps around late. A video of him practising the technique ahead of the clash with France in the 2021 Six Nations garnered a lot of attention. 

While it can bounce players if executed correctly, there is a high degree of danger if he gets it wrong, which has happened on more than one occasion… 

Owen Farrell’s tackle technique: A timeline

2014-15 Premiership final – High tackle on Anthony Watson (penalty only)

Anthony Watson was forced from the field after only two minutes of the 2015 Premiership final. Mako Vunipola’s low tackle meant that Watson’s height dropped, and Farrell’s flailing arm caught the winger. 

Then Bath coach Mike Ford said the challenge warranted a red card. 

Owen Farrell's tackle technique

Farrell’s hit on Anthony Watson in the 2015 Premiership final (Getty Images)

2015 Rugby World Cup – High and late tackle on Matt Giteau (yellow card)

Farrell spent the end of England’s defeat by Australia in the sin-bin, having tackled Matt Giteau when the Australian didn’t have the ball, barrelling into him upright before looking bemused when referee Romain Poite blew his whistle. 

He was yellow-carded for the offence.

2015-16 Champions Cup semi-final – High tackle on Dan Robson (yellow card, two-game ban)

Less than a year later, Farrell was banned for the first time following a tackle. Wasps scrum-half Dan Robson took a loop and tried to duck between two tackles. 

One of them was Farrell’s, whose swinging arm caught Robson around the head, knocking the nine out. Roman Poite was again the referee and again yellow-carded Farrell.

The citing commissioner decided it was a red-card offence and he was subsequently suspended for two games. 

2018 Autumn Internationals – No arms tackle on Andre Esterhuizen (unpenalised)

South Africa were on the attack late in the game at Twickenham, trailing only 12-11. A massive tackle from Farrell seemed to have created a match-winning turnover for England – but then referee Angus Gardner sent the hit to the big screen. 

After consultation with the TMO, it was decided that Farrell did not make contact with the head and there was an attempt to wrap. Gardner later said that he should have penalised Farrell. 

2018 Autumn Internationals – No arms tackle on Izack Rodda (unpenalised)

Only three weeks later, Farrell was under the microscope again. Wallabies lock Izack Rodda burst through and looked likely to score, before a hit from Farrell sent him tumbling. 

Many saw it as an illegal tackle made when there was a clear try-scoring opportunity, but it wasn’t penalised. Then Australia coach Michael Cheika called for a yellow card and penalty try. 

2019-20 Premiership – High tackle on Charlie Atkinson (five-game ban)

Chasing a kick, Farrell’s attempted tackle on Charlie Atkinson misjudged the Wasps teenager’s slight dip. Farrell caught him flush in the head, knocking the youngster out. He was red-carded and the England captain was quick to apologise to Atkinson. 

With the offence seen as a high-level entry on the high tackle spectrum, it carried an initial punishment of ten weeks. Mitigation reduced the sentence by 50%, landing Farrell with a five-game ban and causing him to miss the Champions Cup semi-final.

Atkinson told Wales Online this month: “The whole time talking he spent it just apologising and convincing me it was an honest mistake. I knew it was anyway. I have been watching him play since 2012, and he has been caught for his tackle technique before, but I knew that he meant nothing by it.”

2020-21 Championship – High tackle on Sam Olver (unpenalised)

Playing in the Championship without TMOs, Farrell’s tackle technique still raised questions. 

Here his arm seems to slip around Doncaster fly-half Sam Olver’s head, for what seems to be a yellow-card offence. He avoided any sanction. 

The verdict

England head coach Eddie Jones has always defended Farrell’s tackle technique, including during the 2018 autumn Internationals: “When you hit people hard, you place yourself at risk. And he hits people hard. I like people being hit hard. Obviously we want to be within the laws. Owen doesn’t try to tackle outside of the laws so he’ll keep on working on that.”

Two years later, after Farrell’s tackle on Atkinson, Jones said: “He’s always working on his tackle technique. I went to the gym this morning and he was doing some extra work with Jon Clarke. That’s a constant work-on for not only Owen, but a lot of our players.”

Ahead of a Test series against South Africa, which may include some high tackle controversy, we wait to see if that work has paid off.

Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.