The choke tackle: mastering art of tackling before opponent hits deck

WHAT is the “choke tackle” that has become a buzz phrase in Irish rugby?

It is not new, as it occurs simply when two defenders hold up and wrap tightly an attacker, almost as if choking him in an effort to squeeze the ball out. That has always occurred in rugby and individual players all over the game have practised it.

However, Ireland’s defence coach Les Kiss – one of Australia’s greatest rugby league wingers – has turned it into an art in the Emerald Isle in an effort to deal with the shift in interpretation by officials at the ruck.

That shift was a conscious reaction to the increasing number of penalties ruining rugby as a spectacle and which came to a head in a dour 2007 World Cup dominated by aerial ping-pong.

Then, coaches were instructing their players to always kick the ball out of their half rather than counter-attack, as they were being regularly isolated and penalised for holding on to ball on the ground as they waited for support. So, coaches, players and officials came up with a new interpretation post-2007 that favoured the attacking team when players go to ground in tackles or rucks. Referees were told to force the tackler to release the attacker when they hit the ground, so giving the man in possession more time to get ball back. No release = penalty.

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And so defence coaches looked for a new way to turn-over possession. Kiss, who moved to Ireland from the Springboks in 2008, got to work to inculcate in Irish players an ability to stop attackers going to ground, the idea being to isolate the player, and hold him up off the ground while a teammate strips the ball.

It cannot happen every time as the Irish need to find an attacking player lacking support, and have at least two of their own men there, but it is proving effective when that is the case.

It can also have the side-effect of creating mauls if two players from each side end up on their feet and wrapped in the tackle, and then, if the maul is brought to ground by the attacking side desperate to get the ball back from their man, the defenders win a penalty. These coaches are not daft.

So, now we have attacking sides striving to counter it. Scotland head coach Andy Robinson and Graham Steadman, his defence chief, and attack coach Gregor Townsend have been driving the message home with the Scottish squad that the key is to stay close to teammates on the run, and when they see the “choke-tackle” being attempted, leave nothing aside in clearing the defenders off their team-mate, ideally before a maul forms.

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Who said rugby was a simple game?