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.
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.