Richard Gordon
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Richard Gordon works in the Sports Law team at Gibson Sheat. He is a current first-class national referee, Wellington’s number one club referee, and the resident in-house rugby laws expert. He has spent the last two years refereeing the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship throughout the provinces, from Westport to Ruatoria.

January 1 2017 saw World Rugby introduce new tackle laws – cracking down on contact with the head. This has been seen as a response to several high-profile concussions during Test Matches (think Sam Cane v Robbie Henshaw in the second Ireland Test in 2016), and is part of a general bid by World Rugby to make the sport safer.

Whilst we haven’t really seen these laws implemented in the Southern Hemisphere yet, the reaction in the Northern Hemisphere has been mixed at best, and hugely controversial. Many pundits, ex-players, and members of the public have been vociferously complaining along the lines of “rugby has gone soft”, “rugby is turning into football”, and “the game is being ruined”. These critics point to an increase in yellow and red cards dished out for high tackles, some of which could be considered very harsh.

But let’s pause for a second. What has actually changed?

The law hasn’t changed – the definition of a high tackle today is the same as it was three years ago.

Only the sanctions being imposed have changed. There are two buzzwords you’re going to hear lots when a referee is dealing with a high tackle:

  1. Reckless. A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game if in making contact, the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway.

    - Minimum Sanction – Yellow Card
    - Maximum Sanction – Red Card 
  2. Accidental.  When making contact with another player during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game, if a player makes accidental contact with an opponent's head, either directly or where the contact starts below the line of the shoulders, the player may still be sanctioned. This includes situations where the ball-carrier slips into the tackle.

    - Minimum Sanction – Penalty

Some of this may come across as harsh – “isn’t there a risk of making contact with the head in any tackle?”, “how can it be a penalty if the ball-carrier slips?” – but as Ireland prop Tadgh Furlong has said:

“When it comes to protecting the head and neck of players, everyone is rightly very cautious now. Rugby is a physical sport and there will always be a level of injury risk associated with it but the sport is doing as much as it can to make it as safe as possible.”

World Rugby is not changing the law. World Rugby is simply making it clear and obvious that culpability for these types of tackle rests on the head (ahem) of the tackler.

Like any rule change or interpretation change, it will take a ‘settling-in period’ for both referees and players alike. Expectations and opinions take time to readjust. Yes we are going to see more cards given for high-tackles. Yes, you will not agree with all of them.

However it is important to note that like any rugby law, the referee on the field is the one that interprets the law to the fact situation in front of him/her. In order to keep the complaints from the general rugby public to a minimum, referees are going to have to show common sense. The referees who understand what players are trying to achieve are going to be the ones making decisions that make sense. 

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens in Super Rugby.