Loose Pass: Taking a closer look at the great tackle height debate

Lawrence Nolan
Samu Kerevi Australia v England 2022 - PA.jpg

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the great tackle height debate…

So there it is: the solution to rugby’s head injury problems. Make the tackler tackle lower.

Loose Pass is of a more advanced age than those game humans currently braving the ice and mud to, in the words of PG Wodehouse: “work the ball down the field somehow and deposit it over the line at the other end … (putting) in a certain amount of assault and battery and (doing) things to its fellow man which, if done elsewhere, would result in 14 days without the option, coupled with some strong remarks from the Bench.”

However, Loose Pass is also not so advanced of years that he cannot remember being taught how to tackle at the sprightly age of six. Shoulder into his legs, face-cheek to bum-cheek, wrap your arms around and bring him down to the ground. Not once was I instructed to go high – indeed, every ounce of tackle philosophy at the time was to stay low, stay low, go low, lest you commit that most egregious of sins, the neck tackle. It could break someone’s neck, and you simply mustn’t do it.

Somewhere along the line, that message changed. At the very latest, it changed when it became possible to tackle someone and hold them upright to win a scrum, but there was talk at higher levels long before of dominant tackles, strip tackles and such. The more competitive you became, the more ways to tackle there were. Rucks, meanwhile, were the wild west, where the shoulder tuck charge, currently rugby’s most egregious crime, was a keenly-encouraged way of getting rid of pesky counter-ruckers.

Loose Pass’ own experience – admittedly a small sample of one player’s career – indicates that it matters not one iota where or how tackles are made or rucks are cleared. The first concussion – and the worst – was when Loose Pass tackled low and head-on, but the intended target changed direction at the last second (as they are quite likely to do in such situations) and his knee collided with Loose Pass’ temple. The second was inflicted by a nasty late tackle. The third was in a collision with a fellow tackler as we both wrapped ourselves around our target’s waist. Number four was being cleaned out from a ruck by what felt like a bull elephant (I was told my assailant came into the ruck as though he was trying to break down a door), number five was once again in a tackle, going low and simply being rattled into next week by the collision between his thigh and my shoulder and the last by an off-the-ball knee to the head.

So that’s six concussions over fourteen years. Half of them occurring when tackling low, the other half caused by incidents which would normally lead to at least a yellow card – Wodehouse’s assault and battery… which, if done elsewhere, would result in 14 days without the option (Owen Farrell’s would probably be reduced to seven on a Six Nations weekend). That’s also part of the game. The RFU may forgive me if I am not convinced about them telling me tackling lower is safer.

In the light of the above, it seems remarkably myopic to think that the current wave of HIAs, long-term brain problems, lawsuits and other monsters menacing rugby’s future are attributable to simply the tackler. Collisions shake the head around and cause head injuries, which means there are two people involved. The new rule crackdown seems to imply that it is all the fault of the tackler that such collisions are causing injury, that the momentum of the runner into the collision has nothing to do with it.

We’ve had six years since the introduction of the red-card protocols for head contact, with these all being more and more defined and refined each season. The only stat that has changed is the number of red cards, which continues to creep upwards. Concussion rates are higher than ever in the Premiership, while the number of collisions per game has barely shifted. It is the collisions, as a generic group, which are causing the most worrisome of the head injury statistics and lawsuits, not bad tackles.

The RFU also reminded all of the importance of evasion by ball-carriers of contact, which is fair enough – New Zealand have preached it for yonks as a core skill – but that’s going to be a tough sell to competitive coaches, who now can milk the new tackle rules for penalties/cards for bad tackles because a tackler couldn’t get low. Or there might be a bit more turnstile defending: good luck to those in the bar afterwards. As a licence to make strategic use of using the ball-carriers to seek contact and run at collisions, the RFU could barely have done better; collisions will only increase.

As for tall players, pity them. The lock who gets to tackle a scrum-half used to be an amusing watch, now it is going to be a fraught occasion; the lock who gets penalised for tackling high on a scrum-half has quite rational means to complain: “whose waist is too high?”

The simple fact is: rugby is a collision sport. Collisions cause head injuries. Telling only half the people involved in the collisions to change their technique and quite possibly put themselves at higher risk is not going to solve the problem rugby faces right now.

But yet one note to that is also: the new tackle laws are ridiculous. But is there a better solution? The increasingly possible reality is that, when it comes to rugby and head injuries, there may not be a solution at all.

READ MORE: Owen Farrell: England captain takes learnings from tackle school