Laws on tackling
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