TOKYO – As New Zealand was winding up its Rugby World Cup romp against Namibia on Sunday, coach Steve Hansen was hoping his side didn’t have to make any more tackles.
He didn’t want another yellow card. Or worse, a red.
Hansen had already seen the All Blacks get issued their first yellow cards of this tournament. Props Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi were sin-binned in separate incidents for similar tackles at Tokyo Stadium: Their arms hit the heads of players who were ducking into contact.
World Rugby’s updated high tackle framework this year has sought greater protection for players by tasking referees with zero tolerance for contact with the head or neck in matches.
The showpiece Rugby World Cup in Japan has magnified the attention on the framework and the pressure on referees to strictly apply it. Of eight instances of suspensions in the tournament, five have been for dangerous high tackles.
Hansen repeated on Monday the two yellows against the defending champion All Blacks were fair, but believed a big match was going to be impacted by a card for a high tackle.
“I’d say so,” he said, adding, “There’s no point moaning about it. It’s about accepting it, try and come up with solutions the best you can, and keep your fingers crossed.”
All Blacks are taught to tackle under the ball, which is easier when a player is upright. But when the ball carrier is bent over, the tackler’s options are limited. Laulala and Tuungafasi paid for it, and Hansen sympathized with them.
“The game is incredibly difficult under those guidelines when players are falling at your feet,” Hansen said. “There’s certain things we’re going to have to make sure we do. You can’t have an arm behind your shoulder, because it looks like you’re swinging an arm.
“I won’t go into a lot of detail here because it’s something we’re working on, and I’m sure everyone else is, but it’s being able to recognize how quickly they are falling, and how to pull out of a tackle or how to do the tackle differently.
“We’ve got to find a way. The rules aren’t going to change, so we have to accept that, adapt, and adjust quicker than we have.
“We’re trying to tackle under the ball, and yesterday we saw two exceptions. That’s made us put our thinking caps on. Our challenge is to try and mitigate the circumstance of getting yellow cards. You’re not going to get red-carded for that, the mitigating circumstances are they’re falling. But you don’t want yellow cards either.”
Hansen said it is hard for players to uphold the framework simply because it’s a contact sport played at speed.
“Our game is about intimidation – some people might not want to hear that, but that’s a fact,” Hansen said. “It’s about me dominating you, and you do that through intimidating, legally not illegally. If you’ve got a small technique problem in how you present yourself into those tackles, you’re vulnerable. Even if you’ve got great technique, you’re going to be vulnerable.
“Our game is very fluid and, in a second, something you thought you saw can change. Particularly for those big boys. Their agility is not the same as someone like Beauden Barrett, who can change direction on a sixpence. Some of those bigger boys take a wee bit of time. Like the Titanic didn’t move quick enough and sunk.”
Hansen said the All Blacks will trial different techniques. Some players will get it quick, and others won’t. But he believed the problem will balance out.
“There’s still a lot of people getting concussed who are actually making the tackle as opposed to the ball carrier, so we are in a pattern of trying to fix a problem,” he said.
“Have we got it 100% right? No. But it is what they’ve asked us to do and as keepers of the game, players and coaches, we’ve got a responsibility to try to respond to that and do the best we can.”
Associated Press (AP)