Allan Massie: Law change must focus on dispersal

This tackle by Ireland's Chris Farrell on Sam Johnson of Scotland would be illegal under the proposed new law. Picture: SNS/SRU.
This tackle by Ireland's Chris Farrell on Sam Johnson of Scotland would be illegal under the proposed new law. Picture: SNS/SRU.
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E ven as we get ready for the World Cup and anxiously scan the news for reports of any injuries – Wales have already been deprived of Toby Faletau – the law-makers are looking to the future beyond whatever happens in Japan, and have come up with a number of law changes or revisions which will be given trials at various levels of the game.

The most important, certainly the one of the greatest immediate importance, is the experimental revision of the tackle law. This is provoked by safety concerns and the laudable, indeed necessary, determination to reduce the risk of concussion. So the proposal is to make any tackle above the level of the waist unlawful. It’s certainly worth trying, partly because there is some evidence – though not yet enough to be cogent –that the outlawing of head-high and round-the-neck tackles may have contributed to the modest reduction in the number of reported concussions last season, at least in the professional game.

Concussion is a serious matter. The statistics may be questionable, partly because the risk is identified more quickly now, and players removed from the field for assessment if there is any doubt. Its incidence is attributed by many to the greater physicality of the modern game. What bedevils the statistics is our knowledge that in the past concussions often went unnoticed, while the possibility that a player might be concussed was unregarded. We have all heard stories of players who suffered concussion but continued to play even when they might not know what the score was.

We might also ask why high tackles are more usual now; there was a time, not so long ago, when everybody was taught to tackle around the hips or knees, even ankles. Look at the illustrations in the chapter on tackling in any old coaching manual and the only picture of a high tackle you are likely to see is the “smother tackle” made by a player pursuing the ball-carrier.

One reason for the drift from low to high tackling is the congested nature of the modern game, and the consequent lack of space, which has resulted from the adoption of the rugby-league crossfield defence. This means that the defender is very close to the recipient of a pass, almost literally in his face.

In an early chapter of his book Total Rugby, Jim Greenwood wrote that the “basic pattern in the game is” – was? - “concentration and dispersal… The laws were so designed that there would be a constant clearing of the field, with a large number of players concentrated in a small area –at scrum, line-out, ruck and maul – so that there was a large amount of open space for the remaining players”. In the case of ruck and maul this is no longer the case. So with fewer players concentrated in a small area, there is little dispersal and less space beyond it.

This being so, we see a ball-carrier deliberately running at the tackler or, alternatively, a succession of one-pass attacks.Space may eventually be created, but before this happens there will have been an awful lot of close-contact combat. It is now quite common for a prop or lock to be credited with 20 tackles in a match, more than many 30 years ago might have been required to make in half a dozen games.

Any law revisions should aim at re-establishing the pattern of concentration and dispersal. With more space there would be fewer tackles and, probably, far fewer cases of concussion.

This would not solve the problem of dangerous collisions after the tackle, but addressing this problem may not require a law change. Strict refereeing of the laws as they now stand, particularly that with regard to entry to ruck and maul, should be enough to eliminate much of the danger. At present referees seem far too tolerant of dangerous “clearing-out”. They turn a blind eye rather than reaching in their pockets for a yellow card. If violent play is tolerated, players will be violent. If it isn’t, they will mend their ways or find themselves dropped – once it is clear that a violent player is penalising his own team.

One of the proposed law changes needs no trial, but should be made as soon as possible. At present when the ball is held up over the try-line, a five-metre scrum is given to the attacking side. In effect they are told: “you’ve failed to score; now have another go”, while the message to the defenders is “you’ve stopped them once; now do it again.” This has never seemed fair. Long ago the put-in to a five-metre scrum went to the defending side. Now it is proposed that they should restart with a drop kick from the try line. This seems like an improvement, though not necessarily better than a reversion to the old law. However, it should cut down on the tedious succession of “pick and drives”.