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A history of hip-drops: What Super Rugby can learn from NRL & NFL to stamp out footy's most dangerous tackle

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Editor
1st April, 2024
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Super Rugby is currently experiencing what the NRL and NFL have gone through plenty of in the last few years: a hip-drop drama.

Over the weekend, Wallabies hooker Lachlan Lonergan was felled by international teammate Tate McDermott in the game between the Brumbies and Reds, leaving him with a serious ankle injury that seems likely to end his season.

It was a fairly clear example of a hip-drop, which is currently unpunished in rugby union but has recently been outlawed in NFL and has long been penalised in rugby league.

The hip-drop has been banned in other codes because of a clear link to injuries, particularly lower leg ones like that suffered by Lonergan.

As with any tackle in a fast-paced sport, it’s not always easy to define what is and what isn’t a hip-drop – the old line about pornography that ‘you know it when you see it’ does seem to pervade – though both the NRL and NFL have had a crack.

“A hip-drop tackle is where a defending player in joining or committing a tackle, drops or uses their own body weight to apply pressure to an opponent’s legs in such a way as to constitute an unacceptable risk of injury to the tackled player, this will constitute Dangerous Contact,” reads the rugby league advice.

“This type of conduct will include instances where a defending player drops their weight through their hips or through any other part of their body on to an opponent’s leg/s and in doing so places them in a vulnerable position.

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“The concern about this type of action is that it traps, twists, and contorts muscles, tendons and joints in lower limbs in an unnatural way exposing the ball carrier to an elevated risk of injury.”

The NFL defines it thus: “A hip-drop tackle occurs when a defender wraps up a ball carrier and rotates or swivels his hips, unweighting himself and dropping onto ball carrier’s legs during the tackle.”

The Americans add that, across 20,000 tackles analysed, the hip-drop motion is 20 times more likely to cause a lower leg injury.

The tackle itself is something that nobody wants to see, but goes further than just the ‘this is bad’ logic that is relatively easy to police with, for example, high contact.

Because it is something that isn’t an obvious attempt to physically dominate an opponent in the style that most agree is part and parcel of the NRL and NFL’s appeal, rather a cack-handed attempt to make a tackle, the hip-drop has no friends.

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That, obviously, is a good thing, but it does colour the debate around it, with the public discourse feeding back into how the tackle itself is regulated.

Coaches insist that it isn’t coached, and indeed several have told The Roar that if such a tackle was to occur in their own training sessions, it would be just as likely to provoke disdain and anger from their own players.

Yet they happen all the time, sometimes very obviously, with great anger and injury, and sometimes without any perception that one has occurred at all.

The NRL has had a collective meltdown about the tackle roughly once a month for the last two years, usually when someone sufficiently famous either does one or has one done to them to merit talking about.

The news cycle always looks the same: there’s an outrage that the tackle has happened, a collective howl about how it needs to be stamped out of the game, a reaction from the coaches who insist that nobody teaches it and a long debate about where the latest version ranks in relation to other previous suspensions.

Then someone gets suspended and it goes away until the next time.

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We’ve actually seen this not once, twice, but three times in the last week.

In the Good Friday game, South Sydney centre Jack Wighton affected the motion of a hip-drop on Bulldogs backrower Jacob Preston, but didn’t actually land on him, and thus wasn’t suspended or even penalised.

On Saturday night, Max Plath of the Dolphins landed the picture-perfect example of a hip-drop on Titans winger Philip Sami and was sin binned and subsequently slapped with a two-week ban.

On Monday, Lachlan Galvin was binned and subsequently charged for one in the Wests Tigers’ win over Parramatta, copping the same suspension as Plath, though his was only caught at the time because the game stopped for something else and it was seen in the background.

The Plath incident didn’t merit that much discussion, because nobody really cares about the Dolphins or Titans – at least, not in relation to how much they care about the Bunnies and Bulldogs – though it was absolutely as bad as they come and should have been a send off.

The NRL does at least penalise the tackle, though there is very little consistency regarding punishments.

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In 2022, Jackson Hastings, then of the Wests Tigers, had his season ended by Broncos forward Pat Carrigan, resulting in a four week ban.

In 2023, Jeremiah Nanai, playing for the Cowboys, got the same sanction for one on Braden Hamlin-Uele that saw the Sharks prop out for a month.

If you hurt someone sufficiently badly, then, the punishment can be lengthy, but rarely merits anything more than a bin at the time – there has been only one send off, in a New Zealand vs Samoa women’s international, as a result of a hip-drop.

Other incidents, in which players narrowly avoid injury or are only slightly hurt, are rarely as punished, despite the motions often being the same.

Judiciaries in most sports are, theoretically at least, not meant to factor in how injured someone is into their sanctioning, but that doesn’t seem to apply here.

Similarly, the idea that throwing a punch is just as punishable as punching, regardless of whether someone actually connects, also seems not to factor in.

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“I’m confused about it, to be honest,” said Cronulla coach Craig Fitzgibbon last week, after three of his players were left injured by perceived hip-drops in the early part of the NRL season.

“I can understand the technical side of it, but we’ve got three players now with significant ankle injuries who have missed an extended period of time.

“And a grand total of one week’s charge for those injuries.

“I don’t know what the stipulations are. They give you some technical rule – but if you bust a player’s ankle, surely it’s got to be looked at.

“There’s a clear difference between what the refs see, what the bunkers call and then what the match review committee do.”

He would have an ally in Bulldogs coach Cameron Ciraldo, who held his tongue but was visibly livid that Wighton was not charged, especially as the player affected by the tackle, Jacob Preston, had been binned for a hip-drop in the corresponding fixture last year.

There appears to have been little debate as to why hip-drops suddenly appeared and became so prevalent.

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This is important for rugby union because, without having seen much of them in the past, the governing body could get in at the ground floor in stamping them out.

In discussion over several years with NRL and Super League staff on this issue, The Roar can isolate the growth of hip-drop tackles to several key developments.

First, there is the terminology, which can be split into two parts: the tackle and the injury.

On the tackle, there have long been techniques that attacked the lower legs in an attempt to remove the base from the ball-carrier and take them to the floor.

The Cumberland throw, since outlawed, was one, and the ‘cannonball’, where a tackle dived at the knees of an upright attacker, has also been added to the banned list. Both are now rarities.

The hip-drop phrase only comes into prominence in 2020 – The Roar­ could find no reference to it anywhere online before then – but obviously, the manoeuvre itself was not collectively invented by 16 separate clubs just four years ago.

Instead, once we have a name for something, we start to notice it and see it everywhere, a psychological effect known as the frequency illusion or Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

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The same works for the injury. The most common result of hip-drop tackles is a high ankle sprain, commonly referred to as a syndesmosis injury.

The phrase ‘syndesmosis’ is usually misused – it is a ligament, not an injury – and has also only entered the sporting lexicon in recent years to describe more serious ankle sprains.

One NRL coach identified this as an issue, opining that previously, ankle sprains were an injury that most people could understand, as everyone has had one, and it was only when the phrase ‘syndesmosis’ became commonly used for the most serious grading of the injury that it became a focus.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Keyword research reveals very little mention of ‘syndesmosis’ at all in the NRL prior to 2015, with only the absolute worst cases, such full tears, getting the Latin name as opposed to how the phrase is currently used.

Again, it’s not that people didn’t injure their syndesmosis ligaments and it’s not that hip-drops didn’t occur, it’s that we notice it more.

But is that because it is happening more often too? Well, quite possibly.

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Several coaches identified the same technical reasons why hip-drops had crept into the game, identifying a combination of rule changes, strength and conditioning improvements and demographics.

Firstly, rugby league has long prioritised upper body contact on ball-carriers to slow the ruck and allow the defence to retreat.

Since the rule changes of 2020 that increased the speed of the game, it has been harder to take the ball-carrier to the ground, and no tackler will let go and risk missing the tackle.

Inevitably, some resort to taking the legs while already in contact to effect the tackle, and portion of those do so by swinging their weight downwards, resulting in the hip-drop.

That’s the technical part that has appreciably changed.

Secondly, the physical dimensions are different, because players are now far stronger than they used to be.

Speaking to an ex-forward over the weekend, The Roar was told that weight training only became mandatory in the  mid-2000s, and anyone who squats and deadlifts regularly is likely to have a much larger trunk than players who, previously, didn’t take lifting seriously.

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NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 27: Martin Taupau of the Broncos of the Broncos in action during the round 13 NRL match between New Zealand Warriors and Brisbane Broncos at McLean Park on May 27, 2023 in Napier, New Zealand. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Martin Taupau. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Brisbane and Samoa prop Martin Taupau, for example, has deadlifted 310kgs, with the Australian record for someone of similar bodyweight around 363kgs and Siamama Taufa, one of the best women’s players in the world, is recorded as having a 188kg squat, less than 15kgs off the Aussie record in her weight category.

Those are a serious weightlifter who can also run, tackle and do all the other stuff of playing footy. Tara Reinke, the Canberra Raiders NRLW prop, actually held several powerlifting records before transitioning to rugby league.

Add in that the demographic shift in the NRL now sees over 50% of all players have a Pasifika background – more in the NRLW – and, physiologically, Polynesian people have different body shapes with wider trunks that are more difficult to tackle.

Player’s boots, too, are far more advanced than they used to be, with less weight and more grip that makes tackling players much more difficult.

“Syndesmosis injuries have obviously always existed, but as sport has become more professional and media coverage more in-depth umbrella terms like “ankle sprain” have made way for the correct medical terminology,” said Brien Seeney, better known online as the NRL Physio.

“It’s helped that the incidence rate of syndesmosis injuries has increased considerably over the past 20 years – tackle technique changes, improved boot grip and athletes getting bigger/faster/stronger all contributing.”

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So what do this mean for rugby union?

The differing rules around retreating in the line do help, because there is less incentive to tackle high rather than around the legs, which will decrease situations in which hip-drops occur.

Moreover, the lesser pace of the game and short ball in play duration will shield union from the most common causes of hip-drops in league, which is tired players attempting to stop runners with forward momentum.

Union attackers, from a shorter run up in a slower game, simply have less of both.

The rules changes that have taken hold in union against high contact, too, will likely have the effect of incentivising low tackles around the legs and disincentivising the chest to chest ‘stopping’ contact seen in the NRL.

But the other parts, around player strength, size, demographics and equipment, all apply. The influx of league coaches into the defensive side of the game, too, might have an impact should a more upright tackle technique take hold.

Though nobody trains the hip-drop in the NRL or NFL, that hasn’t stopped it. It’s a problem that the rugby union authorities should be mindful of and look to stamp out.

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