Comment: New tackle law is an ass and leads to repetitive rugby

Glasgow Warriors head coach Dave Rennie. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
Glasgow Warriors head coach Dave Rennie. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
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Dumb. That was Dave Rennie’s word for George Turner’s indiscretion last week. “Daft” is mine.

Charitably you might say he suffered a rush of blood to the head. All the same his four-week suspension for breaching Law 10.4 – “playing an opponent without the ball” – is a bit harsh, given that this law is breached at the tackle point many times in every match, and breached with impunity. Still it was daft, and, if it didn’t cost Glasgow the match, it certainly cost them dear, for, if Turner hadn’t charged into Louis Picamoles, who was nowhere near the ball, Glasgow, 17-5 ahead, would have had a line-out within the Montpellier 22, and the way Ali Price and Finn Russell were running the game at that point it would have been no surprise if they had scored another try.

Obviously Glasgow’s European Cup is effectively over, and they must now concentrate on winning the Pro 14. Even so, they will still want to make a mark in their last three pool games, starting with Montpellier today, if only to regain self-esteem and the habit of winning.

Meanwhile Edinburgh are flying high. Their Challenge Cup pool may not be the strongest, but they are running in tries galore and Richard Cockerill has them playing like a team which knows what it wants to achieve and how to do so.

It was a remarkable weekend of cup rugby. England are the No 2-ranked team in the world, but all seven English clubs lost last weekend, and not one could complain they were hard done by. Saracens, the European champions, were humiliated by Clermont Auvergne, humiliated at home, too. Wasps were hammered by La Rochelle , and Exeter, the English champions, were well and truly thumped by Leinster, as were Leicester by Munster and Northampton by Ospreys, who languish at the bottom of their Pro 14 Conference with only two victories in ten matches. Only Bath ran their opponents, Toulon, close, and for this they had to thank a moment of comic ineptitude from Chris Ashton, Toulon’s full-back. We are often told that the Aviva Premiership is the best and strongest of club leagues; no comment.

Leinster and Munster are playing some terrific stuff, and both have adapted very well to the revised tackle law in operation this season. Both, but especially Leinster, have realised that this revision is a gift to a team happy to play pick-and-drive or one-pass rugby. This is because the revised law, by requiring the tackler not only to be on his feet, but also on the other side of the tackled player, makes a turnover at the tackle point much more difficult; conversely keeping possession is easier for the well-drilled team. Leinster played this one-stop rugby supremely efficiently against Exeter – who are not bad at it themselves as Glasgow discovered a few weeks ago.

At one point Leinster went through 44 phases, scoring a try on the last of them. More precisely they went through one phase 43 times. So competent were Leinster that Exeter might have lawfully regained possession only if a Leinster player had knocked the ball on or lost control of it in the tackle. But 44 times in succession they retained possession.

For Leinster supporters it must have been satisfying, even exhilarating; for Exeter ones frustrating and infuriating. And for the neutral spectator? A dead bore. One understood why rugby league long ago introduced the fifth-tackle law. For the fact is that if a team is as skilful as Leinster and capable of playing its sort of game for phase after phase, rugby as a spectacle suffers.

One doesn’t blame Leinster. They are playing the law at the tackle point as it has been revised and doing so with supreme efficiency. But this law is an ass and the law-makers have got it wrong. Since turnovers have been made more difficult, the opposition doesn’t compete, or doesn’t compete hard, at the tackle point. Accordingly, a team as well drilled as Leinster can go through 44 pretty well identical phases.

Of course it’s always been said that rugby union is a game for the players, and spectators are of secondary importance, who are even there on, as it were, sufferance. Hence the famous exchange between King George V and J. Aikman Smith, formidable secretary of the SRU.

“Why do the Scottish players have no numbers on their jerseys?”. “Because, Your Majesty, this is a rugby match, not a cattle show.”

That was a long time ago. It’s very different now. Professional rugby, like any other professional sport, is entertainment for the spectators whether they are at the ground or sitting in front of a television set.

This revised tackle law, making for dull repetitive rugby, is a bad one, which has tilted the bias too heavily in favour of the side in possession. It needs attention. The rugby league authorities realised that the repeated sight of one player running into another and the ball-carrier’s team almost always retaining possession made for a boring game, and took remedial action. The union game should take note and act accordingly.