Wednesday 26 June 2019

Why Jerome Kaino's high tackle on Jamie Roberts stressed the argument for a future law change

Toulouse's New Zealand number 8 Jerome Kaino
Toulouse's New Zealand number 8 Jerome Kaino

Charlie Morgan

Jerome Kaino’s tackle on Jamie Roberts during Toulouse’s 22-20 win over Bath at The Rec on Saturday brought precisely the type of collision that World Rugby bosses want to eradicate from the game.

With around two minutes until half-time, Freddie Burns had just seen a long-range penalty attempt fade to the left of the posts. Zack Holmes hit Touluse’s 22 drop-out long and Bath wing Darren Atkins ran it back.

On the following phase, in an attempt to pierce the gain-line and incite impetus for the hosts, Roberts picked a trademark line off the shoulder of fellow Welshman Rhys Priestland. It was a picture we had seen so many times before.

Roberts, the two-time British and Irish Lions tourist, has been one of the most influential players of his generation. Over a 97-Test career to date, his robust attributes in defence and attack have accentuated the importance of winning the gain-line battle in modern rugby union.

Kaino, a back-to-back Rugby World Cup-winning All Black, has shared this landscape and tasted great success. He spotted Roberts and set himself to attempt a dominant tackle on Bath’s keynote carrier.

Coaches often talk about ‘stopping power’. Kaino possesses that in buckets. He was probably targeting Roberts’ sternum with the kind of upper-body challenge that has become more and more prevalent over the past two decades.

Exhaustive research from sports scientists such as Ross Tucker has shown that a meeting of two upright players is most likely to lead to concussions – crucially, to either the tackled player or the tackler. Put simply, such body positions lend themselves to head-on-head and shoulder-on-head contact.

Sure enough, Roberts left the field and did not return following a head injury assessment. A day later, he posted a tweet suggesting that Kaino’s shoulder had made contact with his jaw – either directly or after riding up from his chest.

Out on the field, referee Andrew Brace could not be sure. Although Brace immediately blew up and awarded Bath a penalty, he needed to view a series of replays.

Even then, when Kaino was eventually sin-binned, Brace had to admit: “I’m not sure where the point of contact is, but it’s reckless – yellow.”

Watch it all here:

The episode demonstrated how small the margin of error is as authorities strive to alter player behaviour under the current laws. Kaino was a couple of centimetres away from making an excellent, momentum-stalling tackle.

And yet, he could have been sent off if there had been another television angle for officials to view.

Earlier this season, when George Smith was red-carded for this tackle on Saracens back-rower Jackson Wray, he argued that his upright tackle had impacted on the ball.

The Wallaby great was spared a ban after demonstrating to a disciplinary panel – with the help of Bristol Bears director of rugby Pat Lam – that the carrier’s head had whipped backwards due to the “trampoline effect” created by the ball:

Eventually, the panel found that there had been no foul play whatsoever. But Smith’s actions had brought a red card in the game. Again, we see how small the margin for error is.

On Sunday, Toulon’s Josua Tuisova made a strong tackle.

Referee Ben Whitehouse dealt with the incident perfectly. His dialogue with television match official Neil Paterson ran as follows.

Whitehouse: “Can you show me that again, please?”

Paterson: “Here it comes again, Ben. We’re going to freeze it at the point of contact.”

Whitehouse: “Well that is the point of contact and it is clearly just on…just above the shoulder. Is that correct?”

Paterson: “That’s clear, and there’s no contact with the head at all.”

Whitehouse: “So it’s a penalty only, at worst? Yes?”

Paterson: “I can see no clear and obvious foul play as the point of contact is on the shoulder.”

Whitehouse: “Touch, then.”

As a lineout is called, Tuisova looked to the heavens with relief.

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It was another all-or-nothing incident that demonstrated the disciplinary danger of players making upright tackles. Centimetres higher, and Tuisova’s tackle would have brought a red card.

Presciently, Roberts gave an exclusive interview to Hugh Godwin, which was published in the i newspaper on Saturday as a preview to Bath’s game against Toulouse. Here is a sample from the piece:

“I’m glad the authorities are bringing down heavy sanctions on players going high in the tackle. You can’t put your shoulder with force into someone’s jaw or head. You can’t even put yourself in that situation to make that tackle.

“Saying ‘the game’s gone soft’ is a load of b*******, is you’ll excuse the term. “Players have to sink their hips and get their tackle height right.”

Rugby is changing. That much is certain. November 10 sees the first round of fixtures in the Championship Cup, in which the RFU are trialling the nipple-line as maximum tackle height. This summer’s Under-20 World Championship was contested under the same conditions.

At the moment, a tackle above the line of the shoulders is supposed to be penalised. This new amendment will see that line lowered to just beneath a carrier’s armpits.

Some have derided it. But in World Rugby’s quest to lessen upright collisions and enhance player welfare by avoiding situations such as Roberts’ injury on Saturday, the nipple-height law could be a vital step. And it will not compromise scope for physical defence, which can remain as essential facet of rugby union.

Kaino would have been walking the yellow-red tightrope anyway. But, theoretically, the nipple-line encourages tacklers to bend at the waist while creating something of a buffer zone on the carrier’s body between the armpit and the jaw. Suddenly, the margin for error in a high-octane sport is increased.

If tackles that land there are called as penalties and yellow cards, with red cards reserved for anything higher, then rugby might have a more manageable way to change tackling behaviour that is more sympathetic to players and to officials.

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