League must look to union to stamp out dangerous tackles

Bret Harris Columnist

By Bret Harris, Bret Harris is a Roar Expert

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    It is common for sports to borrow ideas from each other, particularly the rugby codes, which are so similar and yet so different.

    For example, in the late 1990s former Wallabies coach Rod Macqueen adopted rugby league style defensive patterns, which helped Australia win the 1999 World Cup, conceding just one try in the tournament.

    In the wake of Sia Soliola’s sickening head high tackle on Billy Slater it is time for the NRL to pinch rugby union’s laws relating to head high tackles.

    To be sure, head high tackles are illegal in rugby league and Soliola was put on report and subsequently suspended for five weeks.

    But a storm of controversy erupted when Soliola was not sent off, not even to the sin-bin. Referees boss Tony Archer admitted Soliola should have been sent off, but on the day it was up to the discretion of referee Matt Cecchin.

    This situation would not have arisen in rugby union where the rules regarding head high tackles are much more black and white.

    With concerns over concussions growing, World Rugby has cracked down on head high tackles, introducing a number of law changes this year, which offer zero tolerance for the offence.

    Studies found that three-quarters of concussions occurred in the tackle. Accordingly, World Rugby redefined high tackles, introducing two new categories, the reckless and accidental tackle, with increased punishments.


    (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

    A reckless tackle is where a player knows the risk of making head high contact, but continues with the action, which can begin below the shoulder. This includes grabbing and rolling or twisting around the head/neck area.

    Players are automatically given a yellow card for a reckless tackle with the potential for a red card.

    If this system was in place in rugby league, Soliola would have been automatically sent off. The only debate would have been whether his action warranted a yellow or red card.

    You can understand why sports want to keep players on the field and deal with foul play later. The fans pay to see 15 on 15 or 13 on 13 whatever the game may be.

    The AFL does not even have a send-off rule. Instead, players are put on report and continue to play no matter the level of foul play, which is the subject of robust annual debate.

    The argument is that sending off a player creates a lop-sided contest and can ruin the game as a spectacle.

    But concussion has become such a serious issue that player welfare must come before potentially compromising any particular match.

    A recent study in the US found that 99 per cent of former NFL players showed signs of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head.

    If you wanted an idea of how seriously rugby union is taking the issue, you only had to look at the recent Test series between the All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions.

    All Black centre Sonny Bill Williams was red carded for a shoulder charge which connected with the head of Lions winger Anthony Watson in the second Test. This was the biggest game in rugby since the 2015 World Cup final, but Williams was sent off in the 25th minute.

    Williams’ sending off was a major turning point in the Test, which the Lions won 24-21 and effectively cost the All Blacks the series, which was drawn. But no one complained about the severity of the punishment, not even the All Blacks.

    While Williams was subsequently suspended for four weeks, including the opening Bledisloe Cup Test against the Wallabies in Sydney on August 19, no punishment is more severe than being sent off in one the biggest games of your career.

    Sonny Bill Williams New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/Dean Pemberton)

    This kind of deterrent is needed to ensure players do not recklessly or even accidentally attack the head, which should be simply a no go area.

    If player welfare is not sufficient incentive to crack down head high tackles, the NRL might consider the threat to its own bottom line.

    There have been class actions taken by former NFL players over concussion, while ex NRL players Brett Horsnell and James McManus are taking legal action against Parramatta and Newcastle respectively over head injuries.

    And what about parents and kids who watched in horror as Slater lay unconscious for three minutes after being hit by Soliola? That’s the future of the game you are playing with.

    Bret Harris
    Bret Harris

    One of Australia's most respected sports journalists, Bret Harris has been a mainstay of sports media in the country for decades. He has written extensively about rugby union, rugby league and many other sports, and is the author of a number of books, including Rocky Elsom: Leader of the Wallabies and Ella: The Definitive Biography, which he co-authored alongside Mark Ella.

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    The Crowd Says (40)

    • Roar Guru

      August 1st 2017 @ 8:21am
      The Barry said | August 1st 2017 @ 8:21am | ! Report

      I get the point of the article but I think sometimes League has this poor cousin attitude of “we need to look to union/AFL/soccer/NFL, etc”

      We don’t. The rules are already there within our game. They just need to be enforced.

      Any time something like this happens we all wring our hands and say “we need to change this law or introduce this system”

      Invariably we don’t – we just need to enforce the rules we have in place.

      It’s ironic that league in the 70s and 80s was so violent, that there’s so much more concern regarding head injuries these days, yet it was demonstrably easier to get sent off for a head high tackle back in the day.

      • August 1st 2017 @ 8:34am
        Al said | August 1st 2017 @ 8:34am | ! Report

        Absolutely, rules are already there, they just need to be enforced. And I agree, in regards to the “poor cousin” attitude we sometimes have around League – but the solution doesn’t have to be to ignore the other codes entirely. I quite like Union’s approach to game management – referees are almost apologetic sometimes in saying “Gold 5, you’ve got him high, so you’re off” – no emotion, those are the rules, nice and simple.

      • August 1st 2017 @ 8:36am
        rock said | August 1st 2017 @ 8:36am | ! Report

        “We don’t. The rules are already there within our game. They just need to be enforced.”

        They are, to a point. There is only room for a send off in League for foul play such as a high tackle, but no real option for a ref to sin bin a player for them. That’s really what needs to be looked at.

        If teams start playing more games with 14 players on the field due to head high tackles, they’ll soon smarten up about being careless with their tackles.

      • Roar Pro

        August 1st 2017 @ 9:08am
        Spencer Kassimir said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:08am | ! Report

        Hi “The Barry”. I think you just proved the opposite of what you were hoping to argue.

        The rules are in the NRL but the culture of enforcement seen in Union is not.

        Just because we are not necessarily looking to rugby union for RULE changes does not mean that we would not be looking to them for a better alignment between culture and enforcement with the laws of the game.

        PS With “The” being such a rare name, you must be related to “The Donald” 😉


        • Roar Guru

          August 1st 2017 @ 9:48am
          Nat said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:48am | ! Report

          I think what TB is pointing is the fact NRL has 1) penalty/referral, 2)10min & 3)Send Off option available now depending on the severity. A careless tackle (without intent) does not need to be Sent Off when 10 in the Bin would suffice. In recent weeks we have seen a spade of professional fouls get sent for 10 because that is the automatic rule. It is against the law to attack the head, intentionally or not. The ref is the one with the discretion but is failing to use it in the appropriate instance. We don’t need a ‘card’ system, we have 3 options now for illegal play.

        • Roar Guru

          August 1st 2017 @ 10:07am
          The Barry said | August 1st 2017 @ 10:07am | ! Report

          Yeah point taken.

          This is probably another symptom of how lax the NRL has become with all its rules.

          As I mentioned, there was no problem sending blokes off in the ultra violent 80s when it was expected that you’d get a whack in the chops.

          But now in the conservative 10s a second rower can knock a ball players block off with a late, high, swinging arm and there’s no immediate punitive action.

          If that’s the paradigm I don’t think we need to dig too far into yellow cards, red cards and cultural implications. It’s been a send off for probably the first 100 years of rugby league.

          • August 1st 2017 @ 10:17pm
            Brando Connor said | August 1st 2017 @ 10:17pm | ! Report

            Its about giving the ref clear guidelines:
            – if a player gets whacked in the head send the perpetrator to the bin for a 10 minute break if you are unsure if it was deliberate. Send him off if you are.
            – if a player gets tackled with force after the pass is out of his hands send the perpetrator to the bin for 10.

            Not the current guidelines:
            – you have the power to send a player off in the event of foul play – use it wisely.

            • Roar Guru

              August 2nd 2017 @ 12:24pm
              The Barry said | August 2nd 2017 @ 12:24pm | ! Report


              I agree with you but those ‘guidelines’ have existed for over 100 years. We don’t need to look to rugby union on how to deal with this issue. We only need to look at leagues history outside the last 5-10 years.

    • Roar Rookie

      August 1st 2017 @ 8:36am
      Dogs Boddy said | August 1st 2017 @ 8:36am | ! Report

      Here here.

      I have been saying this for a while. Our referees could take a few notes from the way Rugby does things.
      Head high tackle, have some time on the sideline to think about it son.
      Lying in the ruck or not clearing out of the way in time, penalty.
      Nobody but the captain speaks to the referee, and then they do it politely and generally just listen.

      One man to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them.

    • August 1st 2017 @ 8:39am
      Cleveland said | August 1st 2017 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      A good article and I agree with the sentiment but it is not just the case of the use of red or yellow cards. It is also the general attitude in League to tackles above the shoulders. The so-called need to stop off-loads and the tolerance by referees to “high tackles” means there are probably upwards of 40 tackles a match in the NRL that would incur a penalty in a Super Rugby match. That needs to change.

      • Roar Pro

        August 1st 2017 @ 9:03am
        Spencer Kassimir said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:03am | ! Report

        Well said Cleveland and nicely written article Bret.


    • Roar Rookie

      August 1st 2017 @ 8:43am
      Joe said | August 1st 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      They should definitely start using the Union rules. In that case both Papalli and Solialia would have been sent off and Hodgson would have been sent for 10 mins for his high hit on Reynolds. As it was the Raiders gained a massive advantage in all three situations because of foul play instead of the other way around. People may think its conspiracy theory stuff but the players are not stupid and will take an advantage to win games. In the Manly/Storm game Fonua-Blake would also have been sent for 10 mins under Union rules but it was DCE’s asking the ref whether Cronk should be sent for HIA test tells me players are willing to gain an advantage any way they can.

    • Roar Rookie

      August 1st 2017 @ 8:53am
      Dogs Boddy said | August 1st 2017 @ 8:53am | ! Report

      Another one I would introduce is this.

      In Union once the tackled player hits the ground he must release the ball and the tackling player must release him. After that rucks are generally formed to compete for the ball. It doesn’t always happen this fluidly, but if you hold the tackled player too long you are pinged.

      Considering how much we go on about all the wrestling and chicken winging and all the rest of the crap that happens after the player hits the ground why not do the following.

      As soon as the tackled player hits the ground he must be released. No 2nd and third man in, no wrestling. He must then get to his feet, play the ball with his foot and the game continues. Reduce the 10m back to 5m and enforce it with an iron fist.

      This would speed up the game, as well as take the wrestle out of it. Reducing the 10m to 5m gives the defensive line time to reset in what would be a faster game. However, don’t get to your feet (most of the players) its a penalty, don’t play the ball with your foot (most of the players but a special mention to my big man Fifita) penalty. Don’t retreat the 5m (everyone at the moment really) penalty.

      Blow the whistle enough and people will learn, even league players.

      • August 1st 2017 @ 9:22am
        Jimmmy said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:22am | ! Report

        90 % of wrestling happens while the player is on the way down . The twist to get the player on his back plus the lock to control the ball happen way before the player hits the ground. Second man and third man are already in the tackle.

    • Roar Pro

      August 1st 2017 @ 9:20am
      Ghost Crayfish said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:20am | ! Report

      The last thing rugby league should do for any reason, ever, is look to rugby union.

      • August 1st 2017 @ 9:26am
        Jimmmy said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:26am | ! Report

        Famous jungle saying . ‘ Listen to the Crayfish ! We must never become like them.’

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