The World Cup semi final between France and Wales brought the issue of tackling laws very much to the fore.  Sam Warburton’s now infamous hit on Vincent Clerc and his subsequent red card not only stripped Wales of a key player in an incredibly important (and bizarrely close) match but also highlighted the difficulties presented by the current rules. 

Most people watching saw the incident as just what happens when a smaller player runs into a bigger player upright and not prepared for contact.  Our playing experience taught us that red cards are reserved for fouls so heinous they warrant the removal of the player.  Sam Warburton had proved himself to be a tough but fair player.  His character and reputation certainly didn’t suggest that he would intentionally seek to injure Clerc by driving him into the ground.  A red card offended a basic sense of fairness and justice.  

Fast forward to the Wales vs Ireland game and once again we saw the absurdity of the tackling laws.  Bradley Davies was sent to the bin for a ridiculous and unnecessary off the ball tip tackle on Donnacha Ryan and Ireland’s Stephen Ferris was also shown a yellow card for what seemed to be a reasonable tackle, a finding supported by the Six Nations disciplinary committee.  

We find ourselves in the situation where players are being punished under the same law for both decent tackling and grossly inappropriate and dangerous spear tackles.  

There are two key issues at the root of this problem: 

Firstly, the wording of the law: 

Section 10(4)(j) of the IRB Laws states: 

‘Lifting a player from the ground and dropping or driving that player into the ground whilst that player’s feet are still off the ground such that the player’s head and/or upper body come into contact with the ground is dangerous play.’ 

This offence is listed in the ‘Dangerous Play and misconduct section’ which also includes kicking an opponent, punching, stamping and acts contrary to good sportsmanship.  

The wording of the law is too narrow.  It fails to recognise the difference between a good, strong tackle and a tackle with malicious intent or recklessness to the risk of serious injury.  The other offences listed in that section of the IRB Laws cannot be committed by accident; they all carry a level of intent.  Such a requirement is missing for the offence covering the tackle.  

Secondly, the interpretation of the law by the referees: 

In a brief defence of Wayne Barnes, he didn’t see the incident involving Davies.  Had he done, I suspect he may have been more eager to use a red card and not been so keen to penalise Ferris and thus maintain a level of consistency throughout his decisions.  We should not be eager to criticise refereeing decisions with the vigour that our cousins who play with a more spherical ball do so on an embarrassingly routine and systematic basis.  Refereeing is a tough job and I’m certainly not stepping up to do it so don’t wish to overstate my point. 

There is, however, a trend to lump dump tackles and spear tackles together as the same offence.  The requirement to bring a player ‘safely’ to the ground once his legs have been lifted is nigh on impossible in a tackle situation.  You can hardly imagine a player putting in a huge hit then gently cuddling his opposition as he lays him softly onto the luscious green grass.  

No longer is it required for the legs to be lifted above a certain point: as soon as the legs are lifted from the ground at all, an offence is deemed to have occurred. 

Referees have to be able to spot the difference between a dump tackle and a malicious spear tackle.  Spear tackles have no place in the game.  However, if a player runs into contact upright they deserve to get smashed.  The textbook tackle around the legs of a player running upright inevitably leads to their legs leaving the floor.  That isn’t a foul.  It’s great defence. 

As players get bigger and defence gets better, Section 10(4)(j) has the potential to cause as many problems in the professional game as the current scrummaging laws do.  It needs to be reformed with a separate offence of spear tackles accompanied by malicious intent or that are grossly negligent.    

Player safety must be paramount, but the current laws don’t allow for the flexibility in refereeing that is required in this current aspect of the game.  

That is, until I get boshed at the weekend.