Laws on tack­ling

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - SPORT -

T here has been a lot of neg­a­tiv­ity about the new tackle di­rec­tives which came into ef­fect this week, but I for one am gen­uinely ex­cited about them. Sure, it is not ideal in­tro­duc­ing a num­ber of changes in the mid­dle of the sea­son, and there will un­doubt­edly be a bed­ding-in pe­riod dur­ing which we are likely to see a lot of yel­low and red cards handed out as ev­ery­one – play­ers, coaches and ref­er­ees – tries to es­tab­lish where the lim­its of the new rules are. But I think ul­ti­mately they could have a pro­found and pos­i­tive ef­fect on the game.

Not only will they chal­lenge dis­ci­pline in de­fence, forc­ing play­ers to tackle lower and to be more ac­cu­rate, they will also chal­lenge teams to be far more proac­tive in at­tack, safe in the knowl­edge that run­ners’ hands should, by and large, be left free to pass.

The knock-on ef­fect of this should, in the­ory, be wide-rang­ing; play should be­come faster as at­tack­ers off­load more; that in turn will mean more one-on-one tack­les on mov­ing tar­gets, rather than de­fend­ers squared up, hold­ing man and ball; more leg tack­les will mean more off­loads off the floor, and more iso­lated play­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the wider chan­nels; sup­port run­ners will be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant; the break­down will be con­tested in a to­tally dif­fer­ent way, the second man in hav­ing a com­pletely dif­fer­ent role. I think the next cou­ple of week­ends will see coaches and play­ers try to amend their prac­tices – I would be sur­prised if they are not al­ready drilling them to tackle lower – but it will be dur­ing the Six Na­tions that we re­ally see the im­pact of these new di­rec­tives, be­cause teams will have time to work on them in camp, and elite play­ers are gen­er­ally able to as­sim­i­late new ideas far more quickly.

It is in this con­text that I think Ed­die Jones’s re­cent com­ments re­gard­ing his Eng­land team, telling his play­ers that they should not to be afraid of los­ing, were fas­ci­nat­ing. For me, those com­ments were not an at­tempt to re­duce the pres­sure on his squad, know­ing the un­beaten run has to come to an end some time. On the con­trary, Ed­die (be­low left) was chal­leng­ing them to raise their lev­els, to play out­side their com­fort zone and still ex­e­cute.

In the­ory Eng­land are very well placed to profit from these new di­rec­tives. They now have a sta­ble base from which to work in terms of the depth of the player pool, the con­fi­dence around the squad and hav­ing a se­lec­tion of ball-car­ri­ers in the for­wards as well as the backs. Jones can choose where to at­tack.

The Aus­tralian started out with a pretty limited game plan against Scot­land last Fe­bru­ary. But from that first game he chal­lenged his play­ers. Ini­tially it was sim­ply to play in the right ar­eas and to con­trol games. Then in Aus­tralia last sum­mer he moved their at­tack­ing game on a bit, while in the au­tumn he found new ways to win.

Now he is chal­leng­ing them to push on again. The new di­rec­tives of­fer the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to do that.

In fact, I think for the north­ern hemi­sphere in gen­eral these changes could be good news. Con­trary to the im­pres­sion given at the last Rugby World Cup I do not think there is a mas­sive skills gap – the Lions have proved that on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions, as did Ire­land with their bril­liant per­for­mances against New Zealand this au­tumn – but in­stead that high­tempo, run­ning game is sim­ply the way they are used to play­ing. In Su­per Rugby there are more one-on-one tack­les on a mov­ing shoul­der rather than de­fend­ers squared up. In the short term, then, these di­rec­tives could favour them as they are more used to a faster, of­fload­ing game. They are al­ready 75 per cent of the way there. But con­versely that means they have less mar­gin for gain.

It will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see who can adapt fastest and most suc­cess­fully, and what the im­pact is on the game in the medium and long term. I am very hope­ful. What I do not want to see is a witch hunt, with ref­er­ees bran­dish­ing cards left right and cen­tre. They must still be able to use com­mon sense when ap­ply­ing the laws. In dy­namic sit­u­a­tions things are not black and white. But if ev­ery­thing falls into place it could be re­ally pos­i­tive.

The knock-on ef­fect of what we see in the Six Na­tions, in terms of these new di­rec­tives, will be felt in the Pre­mier­ship in due course. Play­ers re­turn­ing from in­ter­na­tional duty will feed back and pool in­tel­li­gence. There is no doubt a few teams could do with changing things up. Le­ices­ter, who play at Wasps this af­ter­noon in a mouth-wa­ter­ing clash, are a prime ex­am­ple.

It has been a tu­mul­tuous week for the Tigers. Richard Cock­er­ill’s sack­ing was a big de­ci­sion. The for­mer direc­tor of rugby is Le­ices­ter to the core and has been part of the fab­ric of that club for so long; a huge per­son­al­ity. But tac­ti­cally they had not been mov­ing for­ward con­sis­tently for the past two sea­sons. They were be­ing read by other teams. The way Sara­cens man­aged to grind out a win at Welford Road last week­end, even with so many play­ers miss­ing, spoke vol­umes.

Other teams have moved ahead of them. Wasps are ca­pa­ble of play­ing a re­ally high-tempo game with width. Ex­eter can do that too. The new di­rec­tives make it even more im­per­a­tive that teams can play that way.

Read­ing Aaron Mauger’s com­ments in mid­week it is clear he wanted to move Le­ices­ter’s game on more quickly than Cock­ers did. He was open about the fact that they had dif­fer­ent views as to how the game should be played.

Mauger (right) has his op­por­tu­nity now. There has been talk of Martin John­son com­ing in in some ca­pac­ity, which would ob­vi­ously be a big de­ci­sion (I may be bi­ased but I can’t see how his pres­ence could be any­thing but in­spi­ra­tional) but to all in­tents and pur­poses Mauger has un­til the end of the sea­son to put his stamp on the club. He could not have got a much tougher open­ing fix­ture. Wasps v Le­ices­ter is prob­a­bly the big­gest game in the his­tory of the Pre­mier­ship, and now it is a lo­cal derby as well. Go­ing to the Ri­coh Arena will clearly not be easy, but I ac­tu­ally think it is a good game for Le­ices­ter. No one ex­pects them to win. The pres­sure is all on Wasps. Mauger can say to his play­ers: “Here you go, this is how we are go­ing to need to play.” Whether they can re­spond to the chal­lenge re­mains to be seen.

These changes of­fer Jones the chance to push Eng­land on again

New world in ac­tion: Un­der the new di­rec­tives off­loads such as this by Sonny Bill Wil­liams, for New Zealand against Eng­land, will be­come more com­mon­place

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