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Opinion

Crackdown? High tackle cards nothing new and are a failure of coaches and players, not the refs

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Expert
4th April, 2022
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Super Rugby Pacific has a high tackle problem that has suddenly popped up mid-season faster than a pimple on a 16-year-old face.

Through the first five rounds, the competition was tootling along, averaging about five cards per week, and to that point, the only time the red card was pulled from the pocket was for Reece Hodge’s two yellows inside one half back in Round 2.

Since then, though, boom! Seven red cards in nine games across two weekends, and all of them for either high or dangerous contact with the head in a tackle or a ruck clean-out.

Cue all the talk about a ‘crackdown’ on dangerous contact with the head.

The Hurricanes-Chiefs game from Round 5 on Sunday broke the run of reds this weekend just gone, but all four Round 7 games saw a red card issued. At the time of writing, the judiciary hadn’t had its say, but it may well have by the time you’re reading this.

And it will have its say.

But it was interesting to hear Queensland Reds backrower and man-of-the-match Fraser McReight addressing the situation post-match, in which the Reds are now the most carded team this season, with two red and seven yellow cards across their opening seven games.

“We’re pretty used to getting cards by now, we actually say we play better with 14 or 13 men, which if you can look back in the past couple of weeks we probably have done,” he said back to the Nine and Stan Sport studio from Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

“We’re pretty comfortable in that position, so we just knew we had to stick to our structures, our gameplans. We have really smart players who can adapt on the go, and I think we did that.”

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They did indeed. They didn’t concede a point in the 20 minutes they played a man down after backrower Tuaina Tualima was sent off, instead adding 10 points themselves. And the Brumbies’ numerical advantage disappeared when Rob Valetini earned a yellow card with about five minutes remaining in the red card period.

But when host Nick McCardle followed up with the question on ‘the crackdown’ and their second red card in consecutive weeks, McReight’s response made my ears prick up a bit.

“There’s definitely things we’re doing at training, whether that’s tackle technique and practicing scenarios with a man or two down, but I think in the heat of the game, your body and your natural instincts take over,” he said.

“Obviously, there is a crackdown at the moment, but as players, we probably have to do better.

“We just have to learn and get used to those new rules.”

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First of all, there is no crackdown.

Sure, there have suddenly been a glut of red cards, but there has been no new directive handed down from World Rugby around this area, and there hasn’t been any change in the way high and dangerous contact with the head has been adjudged.

The only thing that has changed in this last week and a bit is that seven players have made really poor decisions on the field.

Secondly, McReight’s comment, that “We just have to learn and get used to those new rules” triggered a moment of déjà vu for me. Because I was sure I’d written something along these lines in the past. And I had.

“Anyone suggesting this ‘sudden crackdown’ on high contact is a recent thing needs to be laughed at,” I found in an old column.

“Coaches have had two full pre-seasons to reinforce the changes. Players have had that same amount of time and a full season playing under said changes to alter techniques. Fans have had more than a year to get used to the law amendments, and commentators have had that same time to ensure they know what they’re talking about.”

‘Two full seasons’ there is not a typo. These two paragraphs come from a column I wrote in February 2018, entitled “Short memories: High tackle cards are not the refs’ fault”.

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That February 2018 column came after a number of citings and suspensions from head contact charges across the first two rounds of Super Rugby, of which interestingly, only Reds backrower Scott Higginbotham received a red card at the time.

For that column, I stitched a still-shot of Higginbotham’s high shot on Melbourne Rebels lock Matt Philip alongside a couple of other infamous red cards of that time: Sonny Bill Williams’ send-off during the 2017 British & Irish Lions series, and Sekope Kepu’s crude cleanout on Scottish flanker Hamish Watson on the 2017 Spring Tour.

Look at those three tackles now and think about what we’ve seen in last few weeks.

Nothing. Has. Changed.

Coaches haven’t pushed the required changes, players haven’t altered techniques, fans still think the law amendments are new, and commentators are still beating the same old ‘what’s he supposed to do?’ drum.

This is the sixth season of Super Rugby played under the redefined illegal (high) tackle categories and increased sanctions to deter high tackles via a law application guideline that was first announced in December 2016.

World Rugby said in their statement at the time that “The guideline will be supported with a global education programme,” but on recent evidence an urgent refresher course is needed across the board.

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It’s at least something that McReight acknowledges players need to “get used to those new rules” even if those ‘new rules’ were introduced when he was still running around in an Australian Schoolboys jersey.

McReight even said in reference to the stop-start nature of games currently, that “I’d like to see the game flow a bit more, but I think as players we can take a big part to improve that.”

Well yeah, a huge part, in fact. But you have to wonder why this message still hasn’t sunk in over the past five years. The risk of red card and suspension has been in place that long, but players are still tackling too high.

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Red cards and referees aren’t ruining games. Players wanting to identify the culprits only need to find a mirror.

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