Wynne Gray: High shots raise rugby risk

By Wynne Gray

There's a price on a ball carrier's head.
Geoff Parling of Exeter Chiefs lays on the ground injured after a tackle by Richard Barrington and Brad Barritt. Picture / Getty
Geoff Parling of Exeter Chiefs lays on the ground injured after a tackle by Richard Barrington and Brad Barritt. Picture / Getty

By design or accident, it doesn't matter, rugby has decided to deal with the "high shots" which have become an increasing stain on the game and danger to players' welfare.

The New Year has ushered in tougher on-field judgments in Europe from referees and tribunal officials delivering sterner rulings. It's been a difficult start for teams, referees and judicial panels but the message about zero tolerance is here to stay.

Lower your tackle zone or spend more time on the sidelines.

It's a message which has been a long time coming as rugby looks at concussion rates in contact sport and the damaging health reports and legal wrangling which can ensue.

Defence has been the major mover in rugby in the past decade, with players drilled in a variety of techniques to stop the opposition making the advantage line and then claiming precious turnovers.

Where side-on tackles below the waist were applauded for their beauty, the clumping front-on chest hits and double-teaming have become the norm.

Rucking has almost disappeared, as cleanouts have taken precedence.

In tackles, the hits have been getting higher as defenders look to stop offloads and instigate turnovers. Mid-chest has risen to a line somewhere between the Adam's apple and shoulders.

Contact is brutal and often marginal, with players pleading accidental contact about arms riding up from the ball or a shoulder, the ball-carriers ducking down, slipping or changing their line late.

Perpetrators often use the "accidental" excuse to try to mitigate their punishment if they are called to an off-field briefing or are subsequently called to a judicial hearing.

"There was no malice, it was a reflex action when I was caught wrong-footed, it was an awkward challenge on a much smaller man, the ground was soft and impeded an adjustment," are all versions of similar stories dished up to the hearing commissioners.

Now a greater onus is being put on the tacklers to hit the right targets, although problems will remain for both players and referees.

Those snags were emphasised this week when English match officials watched a television replay and sent off Saracens prop Richard Barrington for a high tackle on Geoff Parling.

When the judiciary took in the footage, they saw Saracens captain Brad Barritt clock Parling high before he fell unconscious, in to Barrington's shoulder.

Barritt was banned for three weeks and Barrington cleared by the panel.

World Rugby would have helped themselves, referees and players if they had been more brave with their edict and made tackles legitimate from the nipple line and below.

They need to make every player lower their targets, for the safety of those involved and the increased spectator enjoyment.

If it's still tough to adjudicate near the apex of rugby where there are copious replays, how on earth are match officials going to cope at every other level, where they don't get that assistance?

In lineouts, at mauls, breakdowns, kickoffs and other areas, contact has risen steadily where heads are wrenched, scragged or attacked. High shots have been creeping ever higher to rugby's detriment.

- NZ Herald

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