In my monthly column in RugbyMag I try to focus on the basics of the game for players and coaches looking to develop an understanding and hone their skills. One of my most popular recent articles was on the subject of the tackle and the importance of getting it right, not just for safety but for getting a result.
There is no doubt whatsoever that a big tackle can turn a game as much as a try. A well-timed big impact tackle can lift your whole team and shift the momentum of the game.
Tackling is under the spotlight at the moment, as are all collisions in contact sports, because of intense discussion about concussions. There is a correct technique to rugby tackling that differs greatly from American football tackles. Ensuring that your tackle technique is correct can significantly reduce injuries, including concussions.
The major difference between a rugby tackle and a football tackle is that a rugby tackler must wrap his arms around the opponent. Otherwise a tackle can be interpreted as a shoulder charge, which is against the law in rugby. Very recently, the shoulder charge was outlawed in rugby league. It is a very dangerous method of tackling an opponent and it is being widely recognised as potentially causing serious injury.
Why are these tackles under the spotlight now?
There are two reasons: the first is due to the growing number of concussions in sports as well as the long-term adverse impact of concussions on the brain. I have suffered numerous concussions and although I feel no affect from them at the moment, the fear that I may in the future suffer as a result of these head injuries, is in the back of my mind; the other major reason that injuries, especially head injuries, are in focus is due to the evolution of the game and, in particular, the evolution of the rugby player.
Sports science is constantly evolving and therefore the game is constantly evolving. Rugby has changed considerably since I started playing 25 years ago. The most notable change is in the athlete himself. We are entering into a phase where professional players are becoming incredibly strong and very powerful. This now means that when a player tackles you, the impact of the collision is much more severe then it was 20 years ago. Professional players spend up to 5 sessions a week in the gym, lifting weights and this is obviously having an effect on the players’ physique. Players who are injured are spending a lot more time in the gym and some of these guys are coming back to fitness in incredible shape.
Tackle technique and how to take a tackle are the first things we learn as children, new to the game of rugby. It is vital that players work on their tackle technique and that coaches ensure the correct techniques are being employed by their players. Too often players try to make big impact tackles. When they work, it’s great but a lot of the time, the player misses or attempts the wrong tackling method.
What is the correct method to tackling in rugby?
It is very basic and simple but must be adhered to. The tackler must always ensure that he puts his head in the right place. An easy yet somewhat crude explanation is “cheek to cheek.” That means that tackler’s cheek (on his face) should be against the cheek (butt cheek) of the attacker. Too often, rugby players go into a tackle with their head first and this can result in getting a knee to the head or face.
England’s Courtney Lawes played in a 6 Nations game against Ireland a few weeks ago and put his head into the knees of an Irish attacker and woke up on the ground a few moments later! This happens a lot in US rugby and I believe that it is a carry over from football, where a helmet protects players, and players are often coached to put a face mask in a player’s chest when tackling. In rugby we do not have such protection so every possible way to reduce injury must be enforced. This always starts with the correct technique.
In a front on tackle, the defender must put his head to the side of the ball carrier’s hips, plant his lead foot in close to the attacker, push his shoulder into the opponent, wrap his arms around him and drive with his legs. The last part is often forgotten and the result is largely a soak tackle. It is perfectly legal to drive an opponent backwards and this is encouraged. The way to do this is to plant your foot close to your opponent so that you can exert power from your legs and remember that in rugby, we tackle with our shoulder, not our head.
Knocking an opponent off their feet
Another major point of focus in rugby tackling is picking the opponent off the ground. This is a legal manoeuvre but the tackler must be very careful of his next movement. It is absolutely okay to hit an opponent and, drive him backwards and take the attacker off his feet. This is called a dump tackle and is hugely encouraging for the defensive team, as long as the tackler ensures that he brings the attacker to ground safely. What must never be done is a tip tackle. This means that when the ball carrier is off his feet, the tackler tips the opponent over, resulting in the attacker landing on his head, neck or shoulders. This is incredibly dangerous and will earn you an automatic red card and suspension. Edinburgh and Scotland center, Nick Deluca was recently handed a 13-week suspension as a result of tipping over his opponent in a tackle. Dropping a player from a height on their head, neck or shoulders, has no place in the game of rugby and the penalties are rightly severe.
It must also be noted that if a player’s feet are off the ground, he must not be tackled. That is why you see players being lifted to catch the ball in restarts. These players cannot be tackled until their feet touch the ground.
As a child we are also taught the correct way to fall and take a tackle. The tackled player should fall: knee, hip, shoulder. That is done to reduce the impact of falling on the ground, the tackled player should try to let his knees hit the ground first, then his hips and finally his shoulder. A very good way of practicing tackle technique is by having the tackler on his knees with the ball carrier attacking him at walking pace. Ensure that the tackler puts his head to the side of his opponent, drives into the attacker with his shoulder, wraps his arms around him and brings him to ground.
Tackling is an integral part of the game
Everyone loves the impact of a big tackle and it can turn the tide in your favour. Over the past 12 months two tackles stand out for me in teams I have coached. Belmont Shore’s U16s team played against Santa Monica last year. Santa Monica were giving us a very tough game and right on halftime they looked as if they were about to score again. Belmont and HSAA Reed Heynen chased the ball carrier all the way to the tryline and managed to tackle the Santa Monica player as he crossed the line. The Santa Monica player knocked the ball on and no try was given. That tackle gave the Belmont players a huge lift and we went on to win that game. I recently spoke with some of the Santa Monica players at the Las Vegas 7s tournament and they admitted that that tackle was a major turning point in the game for them. Such is the impact of big tackles!
Another tackle that sticks out in my mind is the Junior World Trophy final in Salt Lake City last June. USA U20s played Japan in the final of the tournament and at times we found ourselves trailing significantly on the scoreboard. The USA U20s and Cal scrumhalf, Nick Boyer, tracked back to put in a try-saving tackle against the Japanese winger. This gave the USA boys a huge lift and as we know, USA U20s went on to win the Junior World Trophy.
Read also: RugbyMag: The Scrums Front Row Club
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby U20s Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyMag.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com