CRAIG LEWIS looks at why there needs to be stricter policing enforced for dangerous cleanouts at the ruck.
At the end of 2016, World Rugby announced details of its zero-tolerance approach to high tackles aimed at reducing head injuries and prioritising player safety.
It was a move that was widely welcomed, but increasingly, there have been a number of incidents at the breakdown that should shine the spotlight on an area of the game where serious injuries are waiting to happen.
Earlier this year, former Wales skipper Sam Warburton was forced into retirement at the age of 29 after a career blighted by injuries.
He had this to say on the subject: ‘You have to look at the cleanouts. You need to protect the jackalers… Sometimes you are over the ball and you have got three players slamming into you.
‘When you are vulnerable is when you are over the ball and your neck is exposed. That is a lot more of a safety concern for me than where your arms wrap on someone in a tackle.’
It’s a subject SARugbymag.co.za also took a closer look at after a neck injury forced David Pocock to withdraw from the Wallabies team to face the Boks earlier this month after suffering a number of blows at the breakdown.
In this past Saturday’s Test between the All Blacks and Springboks, there was also a prime example of a highly dangerous incident at the ruck.
In the video below, you can see Bok loose forward Francois Louw attempt to latch onto the ball at the breakdown. All Blacks skipper Kieran Read can then be seen dropping his shoulder and making direct contact with the head of Louw as he comes flying in from the side. The incident occurred directly in front of referee Nigel Owens, and yet no action was taken. Nor has there been any post-match citing.
Earlier this month, the Ospreys were also furious after prop Nicky Smith was forced from the field after failing a head-injury assessment in their Pro14 clash against the Cheetahs.
Defence coach Brad Davis joined an increasing chorus of criticism over the dangerous manner in which Smith had been cleaned out at the breakdown.
He raised a very valid point that some cleaners are flying in at a high speed and failing to correctly make use of their arms to get in and under the opposing poacher.
‘You have to understand, especially off linebreaks and quick taps, these cleaners, and they’re big boys, are coming at speed against a stationary jackaler,’ he commented. ‘You can have some really serious knocks there.
‘As long as it’s legal then it’s fair but I think as soon as someone comes close to the head area with a shoulder, we need to start protecting the guy… I think you have to go in with your arms. There is a lot of talk at the moment about Pocock and the neck roll, which was obviously very prevalent a few years ago.’
Neck rolls, and players leading with the shoulder, surely have to be eradicated from the game. Below you can see one of the incidents in question that raised the ire of the Ospreys assistant coach. Two Cheetahs players fly in to attempt to clean out the jackal, but fail to do so. He is then dangerously rolled to the ground.
Ospreys’ coach Allen Clarke mentioned dangerous clearouts on Nicky Smith in the Cheetahs’ game. This is a good example.
— rugby (@theblitzdefence) September 10, 2018
It’s a subject that former Fiji Sevens coach Ben Ryan has also sought to address. In this past Saturday’s clash between Harlequins and Bath, Ryan pointed out an incident where the cleaning player has come off his feet and deliberately collapsed a ruck.
Zero tolerance around the high tackle for player protection I understand fully yet dozens of these sort of clear-outs this weekend that can quite easily cause broken legs and ruptured ligaments are blindly ignored…… pic.twitter.com/lClxwXigUl
— Ben Ryan (@benjaminryan) September 16, 2018
Of course, there is also an onus on the poaching player to ensure they have a legal body position at the breakdown and support their own body weight. More than anything, though, World Rugby needs to take a closer look at the increasing number of incidents across all forms of rugby where the player poaching at the breakdown is being dangerously cleaned out.
It’s an area of the game that is crying out for a much-needed zero-tolerance approach, and for more stringent officiating to ensure illegal cleanouts are met with firmer punishment.