New High Tackle Directive Takes Effect This Week

Ireland v New Zealand - Autumn International
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This coming week, rugby union players and fans will see World Rugby’s new directive on high tackles come into force, stiffening up the penalties for any contact ‘with the head’ of an opponent. The directive is well intentioned, given the increasing focus on mitigating head trauma – particularly concussion.

Last Word On Rugby resident Wellington Rugby Referees Association member Scott MacLean explains that with the new directives, there are also the inevitable concerns of ‘what impact that will have on the game itself?’

Players, coaches and match officials urged to be proactive in changing culture of contact with the head area.

The High Tackle Directive

World Rugby has issued the following guidelines for the application of the directive;

Reckless tackle
– 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. This sanction applies even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. This type of contact also applies to grabbing and rolling or twisting around the head/neck area even if the contact starts below the line of the shoulders.
Minimum sanction: Yellow card
Maximum sanction: Red card
Accidental tackle
– 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

In many respects, we’ve already seen the directive being applied in the Aviva Premiership and Pro12 competitions ahead of the ‘launch’ date. That is with an increase of cards issued, as well as in the judicial hearing for All Black Malakai Fekitoa. After the Ireland v New Zealand test, the International judiciary concluded he should have been sent off, rather than sin-binned for his high tackle on Simon Zebo.

On-field Use Being Applied Today

Similarly, this would also have been a factor in Dylan Hartley’s sending off and suspension for his hit on Sean O’Brien. But there were also other factors in play in that incident, such as Hartley’s use of a swinging stiff-arm. Interpretation played it’s part, as it will after the new directives are used on the field officially.

Inevitably this has led to coaches in both northern hemisphere competitions being aggrieved to an extent with the rules changing on the fly. The ‘in-my-day’ types have also been out in force; though that ignores that today’s game is played at much faster pace and with bigger, stronger players. While the human head has not evolved at near the same rate, player welfare is now paramount.


Until now, referees have generally used their judgement around sanctioning high tackles; after all the law about what constitutes a high tackle (presently Law 10.4(e)) has been in the books for many years. That sanction could be anything from a ordering off, down to a quiet word with the player depending on the severity and material impact on the game itself.

This directive takes those lower-level options away, and referees will now be forced to, at minimum penalise any high tackle. It is also what World Rugby wants by deterring such tackles and taking this type of dangerous play out of the game in much the same way with players being taken out in the air, along with those more nefarious goings-on such as stomping and eye-gouging.

New Interpretations Will Cause Confusion/Discussion at First

The first issue that all parties will have to adapt to is just what the dividing line is between a reckless and accidental high tackle, and then being consistent in approach and application. It is somewhat inevitable that some players will see a sanction that is disproportionate to the incident and comparisons will be made, coaches will complain, and fans will get upset.  It can only be hoped that these [high tackle directive interpretations] are kept to a minimum.

As a referee myself, I have considerable empathy for my northern colleagues. Particularly those operating without the benefit of replays and having to apply this new directive mid-season. Training and understanding must be primary, to the changes being applied first-hand.

RugbyReady program link here

Ultimately, it is not hard to see what World Rugby are trying to achieve here, in a time where other ‘impact sports’ such as its League counterpart and American Football grapple with the same concerns around the effects of head trauma. The easiest way to achieve that is by using, and teaching proper tackling technique and keeping tackles below the line of the shoulders.

George North, Wales, is tackled by Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell, Australia. 2015 Rugby World Cup (Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s a positive change in the direction of the game, it’s just a question of ‘how quickly players adapt’ and ‘how many lumps in the game’ it takes along the way.

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