Sunday 22 September 2019

Tony Ward: It is no exaggeration to say that rugby is at a crossroads

Lenient Hartley ban pulls rug out from under World Rugby's clampdown

Northampton Saints’ Dylan Hartley is shown a red card by referee Jerome Garces during the game against Leinster. Photo credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Northampton Saints’ Dylan Hartley is shown a red card by referee Jerome Garces during the game against Leinster. Photo credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Rugby should be on a high. With three wins from four for the provinces last weekend and the return legs of the double-headers to come today and tomorrow, the European buzz is back.

Yet for all the tribal passion surrounding this great competition, it's been a depressing week for the game.

World Rugby has a problem - the tackle. We need to redefine the tackle.

So just what is the tackle? Under Law 15 of the World Rugby playing charter, "a tackle occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and is brought to ground".

But within that seemingly simple definition there is an obvious problem.

What if the player is not brought to ground?

Where stands the 'Choke tackle'? - of which Ireland (courtesy of Les Kiss) are possibly the greatest exponent.

I am not suggesting that the choke tackle (despite that less than endearing term) is illegal or dangerous, but I raise the point for the simple reason that it didn't exist in times past.

International Rugby Newsletter

Rugby insights and commentary from our renowned journalists like Neil Francis, Will Slattery, Alan Quinlan & Cian Tracey.

The phrase "bring to ground" is key here. As a schoolboy learning the game and as a former teacher and coach attempting to introduce young boys to it over many years, the message was simple: cheek to cheek.

The objective was to get the would-be tackler to place the cheek of his face behind the cheek on the bum of the ball carrier.

It sounds simple in theory and was equally so in practice because as per the law book, both players - ball carrier and tackler - DID go to ground.

But that was then, this is now - and how the game has changed in the interim.

Long gone is the instruction to tackle low; instead defenders are instructed to do anything from dislodging the ball, to preventing any attempted pass to supporting players, to stopping the ball carrier breaking the gainline, by not letting his forward momentum take him to ground.

We have seen a seismic shift in emphasis, and with it an alarming increase in head injuries - not least concussion.

It is no exaggeration to say that we are at a crossroads - and I say that as someone actively involved in attracting young players to this still fantastic game.

Rugby has never been more popular or more appealing, but never have parents been more sceptical. I can understand their concerns.

So too does World Rugby, who this week redefined the law in relation to illegal or high tackles.

A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game (as in the Dylan Hartley incident) if in making contact, the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway.

This sanction applies even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders.

Any reckless or accidental contact with the head will no longer be accepted.

World Rugby, addressing this growing cancer on the game, will increase vigilance and sanctions in an attempt to reduce further still the risk of injury. The redefined law will apply at all levels of the game from January 3.

There is no doubting the sincerity or significance of this statement.

However, theory and reality could still be poles apart.

Under the amended law, any contact with the head - even if the tackle started below the shoulders - is deemed a penalty offence. That is acceptable and manageable

However, where the ball carrier ducks or slips going into the tackle, I don't for the life of me see how a tackler can avoid making contact with the upper part of the carrier's body.

In other words, it will become much easier to milk penalties through ducking and weaving low.

Last weekend we had two very different high-profile instances of foul play surrounding the tackle, specifically the head area.

On Friday night at Franklin's Gardens, Hartley's red card sadly overshadowed everything else.

The England captain's action was loaded with malicious intent. The object was to inflict damage on an opposition player, and thanks to video technology, the offence got the immediate sanction it deserved, with Northampton reduced to 14 men, effectively ending the match as a contest.

It was an act of lunacy, and given the timing in relation to World Rugby's amendments, the outcome of Hartley's Independent Disciplinary Hearing in midweek was a kick in the gut for the global body.

The three-man committee deemed the Hartley incident to be worthy of a red card (thank God for small mercies) but mid-range in World Rugby's sanctions, selecting five weeks as the appropriate point of entry.

Taking into account Hartley's appalling disciplinary record, the committee added two weeks to the sanction before subtracting one in respect of the player's guilty plea. Guilty plea? You couldn't make it up.

The bottom line is that Hartley essentially gets a rap on the knuckles, resuming action on January 28, a week before England play France at Twickenham.

If this is justice being done, then I despair - and if it were the Irish skipper in the dock for an equivalent offence I would feel exactly the same.

The game has been sold short by this decision.

Try explaining this disciplinary rationale to parents who are indifferent about their kids taking up the sport at all.

Hartley's action was evil in intent and you don't need to have played this great game to understand that.

World Rugby's attempt at a zero tolerance approach to high tackling could hardly have had the rug pulled at source more effectively.

The other high-profile incident concerned Kurtley Beale's so-called misdemeanour for Wasps against Connacht. This is where the problem exists for match officials and by extension World Rugby.

Beale's tackle on Niyi Adeolokun was at the other end of the scale to Hartley's, with the Connacht winger slipping into it. Beale didn't deserve a yellow card.

It can be a thin line for officials, but at least in addressing the issue, World Rugby have set in motion a process to remove this modern-day blight.

Mind you, with a contribution like this from England CEO Ian Ritchie, you wonder if there's any hope at all:

"I think Dylan's got credit in the bank. I think most people would say it's been a fantastic year. We've had 13 wins out of 13 and Dylan has made a huge contribution and he should be allowed to continue that."

Little elaboration necessary.

So as the Northampton train rolls into town, a message from the town of Tullamore:

"Watch out Northampton, the 'Leinster Express' is coming down the tracks with hundreds of blue and white fans from Tullamore RFC on board."

The Offaly club have teamed up with Irish Rail to run a direct train from Tullamore to Lansdowne Road for this evening's Champions Cup showdown - thanks to the recent re-opening of the Phoenix Park tunnel.

The train is a 450 member sell-out, with pride of place for the newly formed Tullamore Tigers Disability Tag rugby team who will take to the pitch at half-time in a special exhibition game.

In embracing the IRFU Disability Tag programme, 14 players from Rehab Care Tullamore and Acquired Brain Injury Ireland, Mountbolus have come together at Spollanstown.

Indo Sport

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport