Red card fears forces Farrell to adopt lower tackling technique
England captain Owen Farrell has adapted his tackling technique amid fears the World Cup could see a flurry of red and yellow cards following a crackdown on the height of tackles due to concerns for players' safety.
Farrell was at the centre of two contentious incidents during the autumn Tests against South Africa and Australia.
Since then, World Rugby revised its directives as to what constitutes a legitimate tackle. The aim has been to drive down the height of contact.
John Mitchell, England's defence coach, said yesterday that there had been specialist work done on techniques with the head a "no-go" zone.
"Owen has made some adjustments," Mitchell said in Miyazaki, where England are based before flying to Sapporo for their opening Pool C match against Tonga on Sunday.
"John Carrington, one of our strength and conditioning coaches who is also my support in defence, is very good at the tackle technique, so they (the team) have just made some adjustments based on that.
"If your hand is in front of your shoulder then you've got a better chance of making a proper wrap tackle. If your shoulder is ahead of your hands then the law probably doesn't look after you very well.
International Rugby Newsletter
"At the back of everyone's mind is the U-20s world tournament, where there were a lot of cards (17: 13 yellow, four red) issued. There will definitely be some apprehension. You are just going to have to deal with whatever happens. You'd like to think since that tournament there has been some learning, a bit more common sense.
"It is good for the game in the way we now have a good calibration to look after the head, so it's really important that you have to adapt.
"The sides that haven't spent time on that height and tackle technique and have left it liberal, that could be costly. It's certainly an important part of our process and we make sure that we train it in the way that it'll give us an advantage but, ultimately, we understand the head is a no-go zone."
World Rugby will clarify today what will and will not be allowed at the tackle area. There has been a revision to the directives that were issued at the end of the season and applied to the U-20s tournament.
While there is a sense that there will be some latitude allowed for the complexity of big men arriving fast to the breakdown, it is also clear that there will be zero tolerance on contact with the head.
England have made a point of training with 14 and even 13 men to rehearse a scenario where they might have one or two men in the sin-bin.
New Zealand deliberately played with 14 men in the latter stages of their 92-7 win over Tonga, while England had intended to do the same in the warm-up game against Ireland, only for George Kruis to pre-empt the ploy by getting sin-binned for a reckless high tackle on fly-half Jack Carty.
World Rugby is intent on changing player behaviour by getting them to tackle lower, but there is little doubt that the competitive credibility of the World Cup would be affected if the on-field sanctions were applied too harshly.
"Alain Rolland (World Rugby elite referee manager) went around the groups and I was present at one of his meetings, where he brought some visuals and a flow chart of some decision-making," Mitchell said.
"The visuals were the best because the flow chart was a bit complex! But it was very clear on what they want. There was a lot more focus previously on just the tackler. Now you've got the second man, where there can be mitigating circumstances as well. So that all comes into the process.
"The most important thing with defence is to remain calm and controlled. It's not an emotion, it's a feeling and the good defenders like to feel a good defence. They're generally not interested in diagrams and systems like that, they just want to have that feeling of making a good hit or a good defensive decision and in order to do that you need to be calm.
"So we're big on being free and not being over-conscious on too much detail, and making sure that we trust our mates on either side of us so you can do what you need to do to make decisions around that.
England are monitoring the fitness of wing Joe Cokanasiga and back-row forward Mark Wilson, who have knee niggles.