Tom May: New high tackle sanctions need a dose of realism

Saracens' Richard Barrington was the first player to be red carded under the new sanctions (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

Jan. 3: The date that loomed large for what seemed an eternity as World Rugby brought in the new high tackle sanctions around contact with the head.

It's arrived and chaos has followed. Some of the decisions I have seen throughout this weekend's games have been poor and while it will take time for the new sanctions to be fully understood, there seems to be a lack of consistency across the board.

I understand why we are looking at player safety but I agree with Tom Wood, the Northampton Saints captain, who spoke on Saturday about the new sanctions and the current red card epidemic. Nothing was vastly broken before so why change it? In fact, who decided to change it? Wood referred to the beauty of rugby being a self-policing game and though I agree, those days are gone.

Collisions in rugby are massive and the force is extreme. It's part of the attraction of the game for the players and for the fans there is an awe-inspiring interest in seeing some of the best athletes in professional sport going at it for 80 minutes. Rugby is built around confrontation but player welfare is also paramount.

We do need to ensure the safety of players and that increased awareness is hugely positive. Hopefully the days when players were put back into action far sooner than they should have been are on the way out.

The concern over concussion is rightly at the forefront of the rugby agenda and these new sanctions are clearly geared towards preventing more head knocks. However, there is confusion around the game and a fear that the sport is being sanitised. Social media divides opinion but I have seen players welcome the new tackle sanctions. I want a game where players know they are being looked after with regards to concussion and other injuries but these new sanctions are a step too far with simple mistakes now being harshly penalised.

The new sanctions state that there are now two versions of high tackles: those that are accidental and those which are reckless. That makes sense, I don't have a problem with that, but nothing has changed from before has it? Players make genuine mistakes and they will continue to do so.

Ex-RFU referees director Ed Morrison says we need to change the culture around contact with the head and neck but I wasn't aware that there was one. Do players intentionally look for that part of the body? No.

The pace of the game goes up all the time and if players get themselves in slightly the wrong position they can get caught out. With regards to the reckless tackle, it was always the case that these would be punished.

I've played against players who I would put in the bracket of reckless tacklers and no one wants to see players smashed in the face with a swinging arm. It's a cheap shot and can do some serious damage.

But what these new sanctions have done is brought in a new paranoia for referees and there are different interpretations from game-to-game over the same weekend as three examples taken from the latest round of Guinness PRO12 and Aviva Premiership fixtures show.

  • Jake Ball was sin-binned for a high tackle during the Scarlets' game with Ulster on Friday night. Marius Mitrea the Italian referee got it horribly wrong -- there was nothing wrong with the tackle at all. What more can a player around 6-foot-5 do when trying to cover the defensive line? Arguably he didn't even make contact with the opponent's head. It wasn't even a penalty for me, there were no complaints but these new laws saw him yellow carded.

  • In the same game Sean Reidy of Ulster was yellow carded for defending his try line as he seemingly went to dislodge the ball. It was a similar tackle to that of Ball but what is the player supposed to do? Go for the legs and it's an easy try. Mitrea went to the TMO and sent Reidy to the bin, but nothing was said to Andrew Trimble who left a lazy arm out which slapped the same player in the chops. There's that inconsistency. George Ford was caught high by a similar lazy arm on Friday and it resulted in only a penalty. No players complained in either situation.

  • Richard Barrington of Saracens saw red on Saturday against Exeter after 10 minutes. I understand the points the referees are asked to go through when making a decision but this was wrong for me. Even after the replay that decision didn't change. Brad Barritt (not a dirty player) clipped Geoff Parling in the face with his forearm and I would suggest the damage is done there as Barrington is left with a player on the way down as he comes towards him at pace. He can't do much and he certainly didn't move toward Parling in any great hurry. His shoulder hits the face and he sees red. Barritt? Free to play on. My interpretation of the new laws would have seen Barritt sent off and Barrington with a talking to and some empathy from the referee for the situation.

Some argue that players will change their focus in the tackle to somewhere lower on the body. Every club still coaches leg tackles as well as looking at techniques to regain the ball by aiming higher. Tackling low is not a forgotten art but the game doesn't present situations where the classic leg tackle can be used as much. Defence is about winning the gainline, something aiming low doesn't always suit.

Implementing these directives will change the game as we know it. The popularity of rugby as a product relies on competitive games and it was only the quality and spirit of Saracens that kept them in the game when down to 14 men on Saturday. Reduce numbers too often, as we have seen recently, and we will see big games turn on debatable moments that ruin contests. No one wants that.

Let's get a realistic understanding of the tackle and move forward.