Rugby Union: The Controversy of High Tackles | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Rugby Union: The Controversy of High Tackles

Sports writer Alex Goodwin explores the controversy surrounding World Rugby's decision to clamp down on high tackles

Last week, World Rugby announced new, harsher penalties will be inflicted for high tackles after attention has been brought to the number of Head Injury Assessments (HIAs) occurring in every game.

The red card awarded to Saracens prop Richard Barrington for the high tackle on already low Exeter chief’s second row Geoff Parling has highlighted the controversy amongst fans, coaches and players.

The implementation of a new rule mid-season often receives backlash, as the players have not had suitable time to practice new legal forms of play, for example, changing the way in which players tackle to make sure they are outside the infringement zone. However, this ‘zero tolerance’ of high tackles has denoted the already present grey area of the game.

The incident between Barrington and Parling came about after Saracens Centre Brad Barritt made a swinging arm tackle on the lock, which meant he was already low, thus arguing Barrington’s tackle was an unfortunate incident that otherwise would not have been high. It seemed the TMO tried to push the referee into reevaluating the situation, which saw Barritt’s tackle clearly being a further penalty than that of Barrington’s. Similarly, if World Rugby wants to ‘lockdown’ on high tackles, how can they award one red card and not two for the same infringement? Barritt’s swinging arm is to any rugby fan a much more malicious and reckless act than that of Barrington’s tackle.

The days of an individual playing on after he was clearly knocked out are over, and this is clearly a good change to the game

The other issue with said rule is that concussions and head injuries are just as common with ‘legal’ low tackles. The same game saw four other individual players removed for concussions and HIAs, two of which were due to perfectly executed low tackles, as the tackler collided head on knee and head on hip. Usually, a newly implemented rule is ‘tested’ before it comes into play, however this rule has been implemented without a testing period, arguably putting the tacklers rather than the player being tackled at a higher risk initially.

Rugby has, and always will be, a rough game, and whilst statistics indicate that concussions have soared in the past five years, it is more likely that coaches now take more precautions after a player has experienced a knocked head. The days of an individual playing on after he was clearly knocked out are over, and this is clearly a good change to the game. Therefore whilst statistics show a 60% increase in concussions over the last 5 years, in actual fact it is simply that fewer risks are being taken around this area of injury, which increases a player’s long-term safety.

Hopefully, the implementation of zero tolerance on all high tackles will not negatively affect players for the remaining games of the season, and it will bring about further clarification of an already grey area of the game rather than confusing and endangering players further. Many new reforms have been trialed and little change to the number of concussions has occurred. In a game where head injuries can happen at any point due to the sports nature, it seems this new rule may be another wasted effort by World Rugby. The Six Nations (beginning February 4th) will be a good international indicator for how this new rule will continue to play out in games to come.

3rd year Political Science and International Relations student (@alexgoodwin_)


11th January 2017 at 11:54 am

Images from

Clément Bucco-Lechat