Writing unavoidably before Glasgow’s return match with Racing 92, it seems foolhardy to dwell on the magnificence of their victory a week ago in the old Stade Colombes, scene of that famous try by Jim Telfer in 1969 in what turned out to be the last match Scotland would win in Paris till 1995, when Gregor Townsend’s deft flip released Gavin Hastings to canter in under the French posts, Townsend himself having earlier scored a gorgeous side-stepping try.
So it might be better to dwell on Edinburgh and their progress. Against Stade Francais at Murrayfield they made a splendid second-half comeback to rescue and win a match that had seemed lost. In the return in Paris they were 3-26 down at half-time, scored three tries and 17 points in the second half, but couldn’t quite contrive another escape. Their inability to play well for a whole match – evident too in their great win against Harlequins – must have Duncan Hodge tearing out such hair as he has left. Still, signs of improvement since he took charge are undeniable. Edinburgh are now playing with style and greater determination. The SRU should surely confirm Hodge’s position as head coach. He has got the club moving in the right direction. The double-header against Glasgow for the 1872 Cup should be interesting.
Otherwise, the most interesting and significant news of the week was World Rugby’s attempt to tighten the law relating to high tackles, now to be deemed either reckless or accidental, with the former meriting a red or yellow card, the latter only a penalty. This provoked Nick Easter, the recently retired and much respected England No 8, who is now coaching his old club Harlequins, to say “Goodbye to the game as we know it.” “Great”, those of us who have become worried about the way rugby has been going might reply: “Great and good riddance”. Yet, even as we welcome World Rugby’s measure, we may find ourselves asking if there is any chance of a return to the game as we used to know it. By that I mean a return to the time when high tackles were rare, and tackles were usually made around the hips, thighs, knees or ankles; a time too when the double two-man tackle was at least unusual.
It seems unlikely. Let me try to explain why. The first purpose of a tackle is to stop the opposition ball-carrier and effect a breakdown. What is permitted and what generally happens at the breakdown will determine the style of tackling which coaches teach and encourage. If the classical low tackle is made, the ball-carrier will usually fall beyond the tackler unless he is tackled so hard that he is knocked backwards, and the tackled player’s side will usually be in a position to recycle the ball quickly because it will almost immediately be free of players on the ground. (Moreover it is easier for a player to pass or off-load the ball from a low tackle than a high one.)
If, however, the tackle is made above the waist the ball will not be released so quickly – this is all the more true if it is a two-man tackle. Therefore, even though the Law requires the tackler or tacklers to move away immediately, there is always a brief moment before the referee penalises failure to do so; and in this brief moment delivery of the ball is delayed.
Moreover the distinction which the Law now makes between a ruck and a maul at the breakdown makes it sensible to try to prevent the tackled player from going to ground since his inability to do so and release the ball there means that the put-in at a subsequent scrum will go to the tackling side. Hence we have the choke tackle intended to keep the ball-carrier on his feet and secure the scrum feed for the tackling side.
The conclusion must therefore be that, though outlawing tackles at head height is desirable, this in itself will not lead to a reversion to the classic low tackle as the norm; it will still make sense for a tackler to go high to impede swift recycling by the player in possession. It follows that if you want to change the style of tackling, you have to reconsider and revise the Laws relating to the breakdown. And I see no sign of any will to do this.
Things being as they are, it nevertheless seems that the distinction now to be made between a “reckless “ and “accidental” high tackle makes good sense. It may be said to codify the judgment that good referees mostly already make, and it does imply that that judgment will be made on what the referee actually sees rather than on the outcome. Severe punishment for tackles deemed to be reckless is desirable; less severe punishment for those considered accidental is sensible.