It is go­ing to take a pro­longed e ort to change at­ti­tudes about high tack­ling in New Zealand.

SU­PER RUGBY KICKED OFF TO A CHO­RUS OF CRIT­I­CISM THAT IT HAD GONE SOFT DUE TO A NUM­BER OF YEL­LOW AND RED CARDS BE­ING SHOWN IN THE EARLY ROUNDS. BUT THAT, SAYS GRE­GOR PAUL, IS AN AT­TI­TUDE THAT NEEDS TO CHANGE QUICKLY.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

No doubt when World Rugby de­cided to get tough on high tack­ling it did so ready to face the in­evitable ac­cu­sa­tions of soft­en­ing the game.

Hope­fully the gov­ern­ing body has the re­solve to stay true to its be­liefs and not be cowed by public pres­sure. There is an irony of sorts that here is World Rugby, so read­ily ma­ligned for not ap­par­ently ever do­ing enough, and now that it has dug its heels in, taken a nearly heroic stance on the way it wants ref­er­ees to clamp down on any con­tact to the head, it is told to butt out and leave the play­ers be.

The open­ing week­end of Su­per Rugby brought out the worst in some fans and com­men­ta­tors who were in­censed at the num­ber of cards that were shown.

Reds loose for­ward Scott Hig­gin­botham was red carded for what ap­peared at first to be an in­nocu­ous tackle. From the ini­tial TV re­plays there was no dis­cernible ev­i­dence as to why the card had been shown and Reds coach Brad Thorn was clearly not thrilled at the de­ci­sion.

“Look, it’s a phys­i­cal game,” he said with as much ex­as­per­a­tion as there was di­plo­macy. “Go to Marathon Sta­dium [for an NRL game in New­cas­tle] in the mid-90s and it was game on, but they are con­scious of pro­tect­ing play­ers and it tight­ens up ev­ery year. It’s a fine line.”

The me­dia had their cham­pion and sites across the South­ern Hemi­sphere were out­raged through­out the next day, run­ning

LOOK, IT’S A PHYS­I­CAL GAME. GO TO MARATHON STA­DIUM [FOR AN NRL GAME IN NEW­CAS­TLE] IN THE MID-90S AND IT WAS GAME ON, BUT THEY ARE CON­SCIOUS OF PRO­TECT­ING PLAY­ERS AND IT TIGHT­ENS UP EV­ERY YEAR. IT’S A FINE LINE.’ BRAD THORN

video of the tackle and ask­ing if it was the soft­est card in the history of Su­per Rugby.

What be­came clear, though, when images ap­peared from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, is that Hig­gin­botham used his shoul­der to col­lect the head of Rebels lock Matt Philip. He didn’t use his arms, came in high and there was lit­tle doubt there was heavy and il­le­gal con­tact with the head.

The de­ci­sion to show the red card had been the right one and the ju­di­cial panel that looked into the in­ci­dent agreed, hand­ing him a three-week sus­pen­sion.

“Hav­ing con­ducted a de­tailed re­view of all the avail­able ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing all cam­era an­gles and ad­di­tional ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing a state­ment from the player and sub­mis­sions from his le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive, the Foul Play Re­view Com­mit­tee up­held the red card un­der Law 9.13. This was an ob­jec­tively dan­ger­ous tackle.”

The fol­low­ing night in Christchurch there were more howls of de­ri­sion when the cards kept com­ing in the match be­tween the Chiefs and the Cru­saders. Cru­saders prop Michael Alaala­toa was yel­low carded in the first half for a high tackle on Damian McKenzie.

So­cial me­dia ap­peared to be out­raged about that, sug­gest­ing that com­mon sense has to pre­vail when some­one the size of the Cru­saders prop – he’s 135kg and 1.95m – is con­fronted with a player as small as McKenzie – 1.77m and 82kg – there has to be some al­lowance made for the big­ger man. And be­sides, fumed a few mis­guided souls, McKenzie had fallen into the con­tact so re­ally, the right de­ci­sion would have been play on.

Again, the re­play was clear: Alaala­toa had sim­ply been lazy. He didn’t get low enough, he didn’t move on his feet and he crassly swung his arms into McKenzie’s head. It was a bad chal­lenge, plain and sim­ple.

There was yet more out­rage with 10 min­utes re­main­ing when Lach­lan Boshier was yel­low carded for a high tackle on Ryan

THE GAME CAN HAVE BOUND­ARIES AND SANC­TIONS THAT DON’T DI­LUTE OR ELIM­I­NATE ITS CORE OF­FER­ING, AND NOT EV­ERY REF­ER­EE­ING DI­REC­TIVE NEEDS TO AU­TO­MAT­I­CALLY BE VIEWED AS THE GAME’S AD­MIN­IS­TRA­TORS PAN­DER­ING TO SOC­CER MUMS.’

Crotty. The Cru­saders cen­tre was in the act of scor­ing when the Chiefs flanker lunged and clocked him around the neck and head.

The ref­eree, Ben O’Keefe took his time and then rightly said penalty try and yel­low card. The in­evitable shock hor­ror re­sponse came from the play­ers and many com­men­ta­tors who saw this as some kind of de­fin­i­tive proof that rugby had lost the plot.

But what got missed was that Crotty, a tough char­ac­ter in­deed, was slow to get up. He had been hit hard in the head and the con­se­quences could have been worse.

There was no ques­tion he would have scored had Boshier tack­led him any­where other than round the head.

It was a bad way for the tour­na­ment to start – un­der siege for do­ing the right thing. It was brain­less and mis­guided crit­i­cism based on an ut­ter fal­lacy that play­ers should ac­cept that their heads are in­evitable col­lat­eral dam­age in the mod­ern game.

There are some who, it would seem, will never un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing supremely phys­i­cal and be­ing wild and reck­less.

The game can have bound­aries and sanc­tions that don’t di­lute or elim­i­nate its core of­fer­ing, and not ev­ery ref­er­ee­ing di­rec­tive needs to au­to­mat­i­cally be viewed as the game’s ad­min­is­tra­tors pan­der­ing to soc­cer mums.

That much be­came clear the fol­low­ing week when first Matt Duffie then Rieko Ioane made high im­pact, le­gal tack­les on McKenzie when the Blues played the Chiefs at Eden Park.

Ioane’s tackle was fe­ro­cious and lifted a sub­dued crowd. It was a prime ex­am­ple of what rugby wants – supreme phys­i­cal con­tact that goes nowhere near the head.

Rugby has not lost the plot. It has not gone soft or lost its car­nal essence. What it is do­ing is clamp­ing down on ar­eas of the game it should have stomped out years ago. World Rugby is try­ing to ad­just the tech­niques of the play­ers and the at­ti­tudes of the fan base.

The sec­ond part may prove to be the trick­ier be­cause some of rugby’s most gory and bar­baric mo­ments are im­mor­talised on YouTube. There are video gal­leries de­voted to the worst ex­am­ples of reck­less­ness the game has known – high tack­les, spear tack­les and ran­dom acts of vi­o­lence all cel­e­brated for be­long­ing to a golden age of man­li­ness.

There are rea­sons to be nos­tal­gic for rugby in the am­a­teur days, but the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of head shots is not one of them. But that’s how things used to be and is never bet­ter il­lus­trated than the tackle of all tack­les pulled off by Jerry Collins in 2003.

Collins, a gen­uine en­forcer, sealed his rep­u­ta­tion as one of the tough­est men in the world game when he knocked out Welsh No 8 Colin Charvis with the fe­roc­ity of his tack­ling im­pact.

Charvis, com­ing hard on to the ball, was un­con­scious be­fore he hit the ground. Collins earned in­stant fame and plau­dits for his tackle, but if he had done it today, he’d have been banned for a min­i­mum of 12 weeks.

It’s a shocker re­ally. He’s high, up­right and his lead­ing shoul­der hits Charvis in the head be­fore his other arm swings around to clunk

I HAD A LOT OF HEADACHES, DIZZI­NESS; YOU JUST DON’T FEEL LIKE YOUR­SELF. THERE WAS A LOT OF ANX­I­ETY, WORRY, FRUS­TRA­TION – A LOT OF SYMP­TOMS THAT YOU COULDN’T CON­TROL.’ BEN AFEAKI

the Welsh­man on the chops for a sec­ond time.

Collins made so many good, le­gal tack­les through­out his ca­reer. The shame is that one where he was tech­ni­cally poor is held up as his best and the bench­mark for oth­ers to em­u­late.

It is tak­ing a while for the penny to drop when it comes to con­tact with the head. Some fans just don’t seem able to ac­cept that it is off lim­its, pe­riod. There are no mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stances or rea­sons why it is okay to con­nect with the head some­times as the game has an in­creas­ing num­ber of fallen he­roes who can tes­tify to the con­se­quences of what hap­pens when the head feels the full force of a trau­matic im­pact.

It is al­most un­heard of th­ese days for an elite game of rugby to pass with­out at least one player need­ing to carry out a head in­jury as­sess­ment.

Usu­ally it is more than just one player re­quired to be as­sessed be­cause rugby has be­come so phys­i­cal, so in­tense and the num­ber of col­li­sions has risen per game.

The statis­tics kept by the sur­veil­lance group in the English Premier­ship have found that con­cus­sion has be­come the most preva­lent in­jury in the game over there.

Con­cus­sion now ac­counts for half of the in­jury toll and while statis­tics aren’t kept, or made public in the same way in New Zealand, the ex­pec­ta­tion is that they would show much the same data.

Even af­ter just one week­end of Su­per Rugby there were seven New Zealand play­ers left strug­gling af­ter tak­ing ma­jor head knocks.

Man­ag­ing con­cus­sion is now an ac­cepted way of life for the All Blacks and Su­per Rugby sides. The for­mer run a clear no-risk pol­icy when it comes to man­ag­ing those who have been hit on the head: they err, al­ways, on the side of cau­tion.

In the last few years they have opted to not play a num­ber of play­ers even though they could have. In the All Blacks, a player could take a head knock one week, be cleared of symp­toms, but the chances are he won’t be se­lected the next.

Su­per Rugby coaches are of much the same mind – they know the risks to the play­ers and they take them se­ri­ously. And they all know the risks, be­cause they have seen first-hand how con­cus­sion has claimed the ca­reers of a num­ber of good men.

Ben Afeaki is now with the Blues as a scrum­mag­ing coach, but only five years ago he won his first All Blacks cap as a tight-head. He was 24 and at 130kg he was a prop with a big fu­ture.

He was mo­bile, good with the ball and an im­prov­ing scrum­mager. But in early 2014 he suf­fered a ma­jor head col­li­sion and then an­other a month later which left him dazed and con­fused.

He be­came for­get­ful, strug­gled to find the en­ergy to get through each day and by early 2015, on med­i­cal ad­vice, he re­tired at the ten­der age of 27.

Chiefs team doc­tor Kevin Bell said Afeaki’s de­ci­sion to re­tire be­came a sen­si­ble one given the risks of tak­ing an­other head knock.

“He might have got back to play­ing and he might have been fine, no one can say for sure,” Bell said.

“But the risk was, if he took an­other knock, which to some de­gree was in­evitable in rugby, no­body could say with any cer­tainty that he would bounce back to 100 per cent, as we’re con­fi­dent he will do this time.”

It was a shock as Afeaki had to give up so much. He wouldn’t be the last, though.

Last year Hur­ri­canes lock James Broad­hurst was forced to re­tire as well. Like Afeaki he had won a soli­tary cap in 2015 and would prob­a­bly have won more but for the fact he was knocked out play­ing for Taranaki in the 2015 Mitre 10 Cup.

He couldn’t shake the symp­toms when he even­tu­ally re­sumed train­ing and he was ad­vised to give it up. Broad­hurst was 29.

His Hur­ri­canes team­mate Reg­gie Goodes be­came the youngest re­tiree to date when he an­nounced he was quit­ting rugby in Fe­bru­ary this year. The 24-year-old hadn’t played for a year and couldn’t see that he would ever be will­ing to ac­cept the risks to his health if he tried to get back out there.

It is a fright­en­ing con­di­tion, made more so by the fact that no one re­ally know what the longer term health con­se­quences will be for those who suf­fer mul­ti­ple con­cus­sions dur­ing their ca­reer.

The ev­i­dence so far paints a grim pic­ture – a life of de­pres­sion, men­tal in­ca­pac­ity and in­sta­bil­ity awaits some.

Chiefs util­ity back Char­lie Ngatai is still play­ing but he missed a

year of foot­ball and ef­fec­tively missed the win­dow to add to his one All Blacks cap. He re­turned to rugby last year af­ter barely play­ing in 2016 and re­vealed just how hard things had been for him. “I thought about it [re­tir­ing] re­ally hard at one stage,” said Ngatai to the NZ Her­ald. “With the con­cus­sion, you just ask your­self ‘Can you keep tak­ing knocks each week and go through that again?’ “I had a lot of headaches, dizzi­ness; you just don’t feel like your­self. There was a lot of anx­i­ety, worry, frus­tra­tion – a lot of symp­toms that you couldn’t con­trol. You ask your­self ‘Why you? How does this go away?’ I guess that was the hard­est – know­ing when you’re go­ing to come right, or if you’re go­ing to come right. “You just don’t know be­cause it is frus­trat­ing. You put your body through so much phys­i­cal change in a rugby ca­reer and you just can’t keep do­ing it to your­self.” Rugby owes the play­ers a duty of care and those who be­moan yel­low and red cards for con­tact to the head are se­ri­ously miss­ing the point. But if player wel­fare is not deemed a valid rea­son to no longer ac­cept high shots to the head, per­haps see­ing the All Blacks lose a few tests be­cause of it will help steer at­ti­tudes in the right di­rec­tion.

The All Blacks had a prob­lem with their dis­ci­pline this year. They picked up 11 cards in to­tal – 10 yel­low and one red – to equal Ar­gentina with the worst dis­ci­plinary record of 2017. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen wants that to­tal greatly re­duced in 2018. Cards are a costly busi­ness as the All Blacks learned last year. It was a red card to Sonny Bill Wil­liams that ef­fec­tively de­cided the sec­ond test against the Lions. He was sent off af­ter 23 min­utes for a reck­less chal­lenge on An­thony Wat­son. There was noth­ing ma­li­cious about it, Wil­liams just got his tim­ing wrong, his body po­si­tion was poor and tech­ni­cally he was off. In the third test Jerome Kaino had to go for 10 min­utes af­ter he hit Alun Wyn-Jones in the head. Again there was noth­ing in­ten­tional about it, Kaino’s tech­nique was poor and he paid the price.

I BACK MY­SELF TO BE JUST AS EF­FEC­TIVE WHEN I GO LOW THAN WHEN I DO A BIT HIGHER. I HAVE JUST GOT TO ELIM­I­NATE THAT RISK OF GET­TING PE­NALISED OR A CARD BY GO­ING TOO HIGH. THERE ARE SO MANY OTHER WAYS I CAN ADAPT TO BE AS EF­FEC­TIVE.’ JEROME KAINO

It was one of the last acts of Kaino’s test ca­reer as it turned out, as the vet­eran loose for­ward didn’t play an­other test and is now head­ing to France.

Some say it is per­haps fit­ting that one of the tough­est en­forcers the mod­ern game has known is re­tir­ing be­cause the game can no longer ac­com­mo­date play­ers of his ilk.

Rugby, say the crit­ics, won’t tol­er­ate hit man like Kaino who are there to be de­struc­tive and in­tim­i­dat­ing on de­fence. He doesn’t agree with that as­sess­ment at all, though.

He is not of the view that rugby has gone soft or been sani­tised to the ex­tent that ag­gres­sive tack­ling has been pushed out.

“I back my­self to be just as ef­fec­tive when I go low than when I do a bit higher,” he says. “I have just got to elim­i­nate that risk of get­ting pe­nalised or a card by go­ing too high. There are so many other ways I can adapt to be as ef­fec­tive.”

And there it is – con­fir­ma­tion, from one of the hard­est men the game has known, that rugby has not gone soft. As Kaino says, the head has to be off lim­its and the onus is on play­ers to adapt tech­ni­cally.

Of course it will be hard, but it has to hap­pen be­cause the All Blacks can’t risk los­ing play­ers to yel­low or red cards in the big­gest games. Imag­ine there is a red card shown in the World Cup quar­ter­fi­nal – that would be dis­as­trous for the All Blacks.

They are the world’s best side but they aren’t good enough to get away with play­ing 14 men. They were heroic in that sec­ond test, stay­ing ahead for so long with a man dis­ad­van­tage and maybe if they had played with more width and backed them­selves, they could have held on.

But it was a gi­ant task and ul­ti­mately fa­tigue caught up with them and the Lions were able to ex­ploit the ex­tra space. It is sim­ply not a fair fight when one team has suf­fered a red card and yet there re­mains a real risk for all teams now that there will be plenty shown.

It is al­ready ap­par­ent given the speed of the play­ers now, their size and agility, that big games this year and next could eas­ily swing on mo­ments of ill dis­ci­pline.

Eng­land killed any chance of a come­back at Mur­ray­field in the Six Na­tions this year when they lost a man to the bin for not us­ing his arms in the tackle.

The Blues were pipped in their open­ing Su­per Rugby game by the High­landers af­ter flanker An­to­nio Kiri Kiri was binned for a high tackle and the clin­i­cal mo­ment in the Cru­saders ver­sus Chiefs match was a penalty try to the for­mer, awarded for a high tackle by the lat­ter.

The All Blacks cer­tainly know the im­por­tance of be­ing tech­ni­cally per­fect on de­fence and it is one of their ma­jor goals this year to im­prove their dis­ci­pline.

It’s an across the board tight­en­ing that is re­quired but a heavy fo­cus will fall on how play­ers are en­ter­ing con­tact.

They have to be lower – not nec­es­sar­ily by much, but enough to en­sure they are elim­i­nat­ing the risk of be­ing caught out by a late change of body po­si­tion by the ball car­rier and enough to make sure that if they do ride up af­ter the ini­tial hit, that they don’t go so far as to con­nect with the head.

This ad­just­ment isn’t op­tional, it is com­pul­sory and the only thing soft about rugby at the mo­ment are the heads of those who con­tinue to cel­e­brate high tack­ling.

SHOCK AND AWE The Western Samoan team of 1991 showed the world how de­struc­tive tack­ling could be.

LOW IM­PACT Jerome Kaino be­lieves he can still be a de­struc­tive tack­ler by hit­ting lower.

LOST CA­REER Ben Afeaki was forced to re­tire young due to a se­vere con­cus­sion.

EN­DEMIC PROB­LEM High tack­ling has been an ac­cepted part of rugby in New Zealand for more than 20 years.

BAD START Many peo­ple didn’t agree with the yel­low card Lach­lan Boshier was shown in the open­ing week­end of Su­per Rugby.

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