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World Rugby aims for consistency with new high tackle framework

Owen Farrell’s shoulder charge against South Africa last November should have seen him yellow-carded.
May 27th 2019, 9:55 AM 7,971 17

WORLD RUGBY HAS announced a new framework for refereeing decisions around dangerous high tackles and shoulder charges. 

The framework, which comes into effect immediately at Test level, has been designed with the intention of ensuring more consistent and accurate refereeing decisions around whether high tackles should be punished with a penalty, yellow card or red card.

Source: World Rugby/YouTube

With concussion remaining the biggest issue facing the sport, World Rugby is hopeful the new measures can reduce occurrences of head injury.

World Rugby’s research shows that 76% of concussions occur in the tackle, with 72% of those to the tackler.

The risk of head injury is 4.5 times greater when tacklers are upright, says World Rugby’s data, so the framework is “aimed at changing player behaviour in this priority area, via the promotion of safer technique.”

You can watch a video presentation on the new framework, which includes high-profile examples of shoulder charges and high tackles, on World Rugby’s website.

The detailed four-step framework begins with a referee deciding whether the offence is a shoulder charge or a high tackle.

Shoulder charge

A shoulder charge is where the “arm of the shoulder making contact with the ball carrier is behind the tackler’s body or tucked in ‘sling’ position at contact.”

As an example of an illegal shoulder charge, World Rugby’s video uses Owen Farrell’s hit on South Africa’s André Esterhuizen last November, which was not even penalised at the time but should have been a yellow card. 

Screenshot 2019-05-27 at 09.04.23 World Rugby's video says Farrell's shoulder charge against South Africa should have seen him yellow carded.

If the referee decides a shoulder charge has occurred, the next step is to assess whether or not there has been head/neck contact.

If yes, a red card applies – although mitigating factors can reduce that to yellow.

If there has not been head/neck contact, the referee must then decide on whether the ‘degree of danger’ has been low [penalty only] or high [yellow card].

Factors that indicate a high degree of danger are:

  • the tackler drawing their arm back prior to contact
  • the tackler leaving the ground
  • the tackler’s arm swinging forward prior to contact
  • the tackler attempting an ‘active/dominant’ tackle
  • the tackler’s speed and/or acceleration into the tackle being high
  • the tackler’s rigid arm or elbow making contact with the ball carrier’s head as part of a swinging motion
  • the tackler completing the tackle [as opposed to immediately withdrawing].

Mitigation does apply to shoulder charges, although there is also an ‘aggravating factor’:

  • If the tackler and ball carrier are in open space and the tackler has a clear line of sight and time before contact

In the event that this aggravating factor is present, mitigation should not be applied.

Otherwise, mitigating factors can see the sanction reduced one step [ie. from red card to yellow, or yellow to penalty].

The mitigating factors, which must be ‘clear and obvious’ are:

  • the tackler makes a definite attempt to change their height in an effort to avoid the ball carrier’s head
  • the ball carrier suddenly drops in height (e.g. from an earlier tackle, trips/falls, dives to score)
  • the tackler is unsighted prior to contact
  • the tackler makes a ‘reactionary’ tackle, with immediate release

 High tackle

A high tackle, on the other hand, is “an illegal tackle causing head contact, where head contact is identified by clear, direct contact to the ball carrier’s head/neck OR the head visibly moves backwards from the contact point OR the ball carrier requires an HIA.”

Once a referee decides that a high tackle has taken place, they must assess whether the contact to the ball carrier’s head was direct or indirect.

If the tackler’s shoulder or head makes direct contact with the ball carrier’s head/neck, the referee must decide whether the ‘degree of danger’ – the same as above – was high [red card] or low [yellow card]. 

Otherwise, the referee must look at whether the tackler’s arm made contact with the head/neck of the ball carrier.

Kaino Mitigating factors mean Jerome Kaino's tackle on Alun Wyn Jones on the 2017 Lions tour would still be a yellow card under the new framework.

If not, a penalty applies for what World Rugby terms a ‘seat belt’ tackle above or over the shoulder – although mitigation may come into play. 

If the tackler’s arm has made contact with the head/neck of the ball carrier, the referee then decides whether it has been direct or indirect [ie. has slipped up].

If the contact is direct, the referee again decides on the ‘degree of danger’ being high [red card] or low [yellow card].

If the contact is indirect, the ‘degree of danger’ being high means a yellow card, while low results in a penalty.

Again, the ‘aggravating factor’ applies and rules out any mitigation.

Otherwise, the below mitigating factors may apply, although referees can only reduce the sanction by one level [red to yellow, or yellow to penalty] even if there are several mitigating factors involved.

  • The tackler makes a definite attempt to change their height in an effort to avoid the ball carrier’s head
  • The ball carrier suddenly drops in height (e.g. from an earlier tackle, trips/falls, dives to score)
  • the tackler is unsighted prior to contact
  • the tackler makes a ‘reactionary’ tackle, with immediate release

Examples

World Rugby has included the below examples of when each sanction should apply.

Red

Yellow

Green

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