The Breakdown | RFU must square fiendish circle on tackling after spectacular blunder
Everyone makes mistakes. Apparently the occasional misprint has even been known to creep into the Guardian. All of us are human and rugby union is a famously imperfect sport. But it has to be said the Rugby Football Union has had better weeks. On a sliding popularity scale of one to 10 the general consensus has been that the guardians of the game in England scored, at best, a big fat zero.
It was such a howler that some are simply treating it as an aberration. Maybe it was just a cock-up. But if you are releasing a bombshell statement from the RFU Council – in this case announcing a ban on tackling above the waist at almost every level in England on a trial basis from this summer – it is critical to get the small print right. Sticking out an “apology” a few days later, with the community game in uproar, and claiming the word “waist” should really have read “navel” was akin to trying to apply a dab of Vaseline to an amputated leg.
Because it seemed to confirm precisely what the shires have been muttering for a while: those in charge are out in touch with their constituents. Suddenly it was no longer about safer tackle technique but something even more emotive and fundamental: the preservation of the game itself. Just at the moment the RFU needed to tread especially carefully and carry the grassroots with it, the governing body blundered spectacularly.
Normally it would take more than one monumental PR disaster to bring about a revolution. But this is a sport already wobbling on a precarious high wire, with a legal abyss to the left of it and stark financial reality to the right. Stuck in the middle is a game that urgently needs to start making better decisions, demonstrate more vision and earn back some lost respect.
As the Welsh Rugby Union has been finding there is a limit to the amount of public sympathy and patience when high-profile organisations are seen to be stuck in the past, poorly run or lacking in empathy. Some of the allegations made about the “toxic culture” that existed at the WRU are so deeply unpleasant that restoring faith will be neither quick nor easy.
But this is the moment, frankly, when everyone needs to think about the bigger picture and acknowledge that better off-field leadership is only the second most pressing item on the game’s wishlist. Top of it, by a country mile, has to be making rugby safer for those who love playing it and more appealing to those still to be converted. Those two things might once have been separate aims but not when there are multiple legal actions claiming the sport could and should have done more to protect players from the risk of serious future long-term health problems.
This is where the RFU was meant to be coming from. Precisely why it chose to go early, ahead of everyone else, on the tackle height front is not yet entirely clear but perception must have been a factor. Make it look as though you are ahead of the “safety” curve and it is harder to prove in court that the opposite might have been true.
But in the end everyone basically has the same objective. Everyone wants the game’s retired heroes to enjoy a healthy, happy old age. No one wants to see sickening head clashes, brain injuries and permanent life-changing afflictions. All of us want a game for all ages, all sizes and all comers. And, with adult male playing numbers falling, there is a finite period of time in which to find a way out of the maze.
So forget the posturing and the cack-handed PR and focus on the blatantly obvious. Inform everyone, regardless of level, that all tackles have to be aimed below the sternum. And make clear that reforming the tackle area is not just about the tackler, it is also about the ball carrier. If the latter dips too low, the risk of heads clashing is increased regardless of the tackler’s height. There was a particularly good example involving the Australian sevens star Charlotte Caslick at the weekend. Caslick was given a yellow card after her French opponent ducked into her crouched challenge. Otherwise the impact would have been around the navel where everyone is now being told to target.
Asking ball carriers to run more upright into contact, though, risks an increase in precisely the type of head collisions the game is trying to avoid. And, as the Harlequins’ director of rugby, Tabai Matson, stresses, it is not even the most tricky area in the modern professional game. That dubious crown goes to the breakdown – the brutal clear-outs, the exposed neck of the jackal, the opportunity for a dominant “hit” – where what exactly does or does not get highlighted in slow motion on TV is another lottery.
Until rugby union’s administrators can square this fiendishly complicated circle there will continue to be trouble at the mill. More penalties or free-kicks for dipping ball carriers, stricter policing of the “jackler” and maybe even a ceiling on the number of permitted five-metre lineout drives … all have to be trialled at the very least. Fewer replacements would also ensure more fatigued bodies on the field. If not, maybe it is time to consider a 12-a-side game with rolling subs in an effort to open up more space. Whatever you do, think of the game as a whole. One rule for the haves and another for the have-nots is not much of a rallying cry for a sport seeking a brighter, more enlightened future.