Rugby: Offloaders should enjoy law change

By Campbell Burnes

With defenders having to change how they tackle, NZ is likely to benefit.
The master of the off-load Sonny Bill Williams sends Ma'a Nonu on his way. The high tackle rules could see the All Blacks, who are masters at off-loading, run riot. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The master of the off-load Sonny Bill Williams sends Ma'a Nonu on his way. The high tackle rules could see the All Blacks, who are masters at off-loading, run riot. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Trouble is brewing for the national sport. Most clear-headed rugby people would agree, from a medical and player welfare point of view, that the new high tackle law changes are positive for the game, but from a rugby standpoint, there are cans of worms creaking open.

One of the largest is the fact that referees, already under strain, have been handed a hospital pass with a ball encased in grey areas. It's clear players must lower their tackling, after years of the tackle height creeping up, but match officials now have to determine intent and have more powers to use red or yellow cards. In TV games, they will head straight to the TMO if in doubt.

Most grades of the game do not have that option, so referees may end up guessing, being over-zealous or relying on unreliable testimony from unqualified assistant referees.

How will this affect the All Blacks and other New Zealand rugby sides?

On the face of it, it will surely mean the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Kieran Read, on the fringes, will run riot with their offloading games.

Former All Black Richard Turner, who has a first-hand TV view of the new law changes at this weekend's national sevens event in Rotorua, attempted some crystal ball-gazing.

"Our strength in New Zealand rugby is to offload and play the ball in hand game from 1-15. If there is adjustment to the tackle technique, it will benefit the New Zealand style," says Turner, who is among the sceptics about how the changes will be implemented.

But while sides may be nervous that World Rugby have handed the All Blacks a further advantage, things may not be that clearcut.

North Harbour sevens coach Allan Pollock says coaches should not worry too much about stopping offloads but focus on chop (low) tackles.

"My answer is don't stop offloads. You deal with it when it happens. Not everyone is Sonny Bill Williams. If they want to indulge in high risk play like, then reap the rewards," says Pollock, who anticipates few issues at the sevens in Rotorua this weekend.

After all, though increasingly physical at the top end, sevens is not built around defence. The onus, he argues, will be on the next defender shutting down, via a chop tackle, the offload to the next attacking player.

Most Super Rugby franchises were unwilling, when approached by the Herald this week, to speculate on what their game might look like when the 2017 competition kicks off in six weeks. Most are assiduously honing techniques to fit what is coming.

New Zealand Rugby high performance referees manager Rod Hill says there will be full briefing for franchises and referees before the February 23 kickoff, and the pre-season will be instructive.

Hill does not believe things will get out of hand, with cards being dished out arbitrarily, at least until after an initial settling in period.

"If a ball carrier slips [and is tackled high accidentally], we're not going to have red cards for those sort of things. We want to be practical about how we apply things. We're not sending guys out there to marshal traffic on the corner.

"We want to work closely with teams to make sure we get it right and fair," Hill says.

Turner has questions, as do many, around areas like TV games stretching to almost two hours, judging a tackle on a player driving close to the line to score, and on the growing burden on referees.

"The intent is correct but you are just introducing more subjectivity to the laws of the game and that's the problem," he says.

There was controversy in the first week in Europe. Do not expect much difference in the first week of Super Rugby. But, regardless, the tackles will have to come down.

- NZ Herald

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