There has been much discussion about the zero tolerance enforcement of the high tackle laws in rugby which come into play this month. The concerns and context are well laid out in this article by former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio in which he highlights that both sides of the debate are concerned for the future of the game in its current form.
A point which all in the game can agree on, is that player welfare is paramount. For coaches and players at every level of the game these changes offer an opportunity to refocus on tackle technique. In this two-part series I breakdown the ‘ABCD’ of contact, from both the tackler and the ball carrier’s perspective, to share how I coach safe and effective tackle technique.
— RugbyReferee.Net (@RugbyRefereeNet) January 4, 2017
Part 1: Make Contact on Your Terms
Tackling is a core skill in rugby and an effective technique makes any player an asset to their team. When coaching contact I use a simple A, B, C, D process which allows players to focus on the different mental, physical and technical elements to help improve their tackling technique.
A = Attitude
B = BOS the field
C = “Cheek to Cheek”
D = Down & Up
A = Attitude (mental)
Rugby is about attitude – and it is required for tackling. If you don’t commit to contact 100% you won’t be effective and you could risk injury. Japan coach, Ben Herring has an unusual but effective way to describe why a player should commit fully to a tackle.
“Know this: Every percent less intense you go the chances of getting hurt goes up by one percent. The quicker you can get to someone the less speed they get to build up. The more you decide where the tackle takes place the less ability they have to hurt you.
The closer you get the safer it is! (in hockey if you hesitate when someone is swinging the stick you will get it in the face- if you rush in you get it in the shin!) I personally loved this from when I was a young boy and applied it my whole career.”
Some players may be more mentally ready for contact than others but that doesn’t mean that ‘attitude’ isn’t an aspect which can be worked on. Even the best tacklers didn’t have the mindset from day one, as Welsh centre Jamie Roberts recalls.
“I remember, clear as day, turning up to youth training session when I was about 14 and I was a bit sheepish in contact. I used to grab the opposition player by the jersey and swing him around!
At a training session, when I was 16, the coach literally lined up two sets of players and told us that we had to run as hard as we could into the player opposite. You were not allowed sidestep, you had to run as hard you could and the other player had to tackle you. That session changed my whole approach to tackling. It is a bit of a man test but tackling for me, there is technique to it but the mindset is important.”
The new tackle law will be in force this weekend ! pic.twitter.com/bPzbBbH7y2
— Mike Pearce Rugby (@MPsportsdragon) January 3, 2017
B = BOS the field (physical)
If you look weak you will be targeted by the opposition so players need to be animated in defence and look like a threat. For players that means being alert, having a combative posture, and being ready to react. I tell my players to ‘BOS’ the field.
B = Body language in a boxers stance with arms up and ready to react.
O = Like an owl, their head on a swivel, looking at their team mates left and right of them and scanning the opposition backline.
S = Sprinter-like reactions to win the race to the gain line and shut down that attack.
World Rugby's redefined illegal high-tackle categories and increased sanctions are in effect from today. pic.twitter.com/ATXNkiDKLO
— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) January 3, 2017
C = “Cheek to Cheek” (technical)
The contact area is at the heart of these changes, specifically the height at which contact is made. Tackle selection depends on a number of factors but ultimately the technique remains the same.
“Cheek to Cheek” is a quick way to describe the fundamentals of tackling. As a tackler you want your head (your cheek) on the opponent’s backside (their cheek) when you make contact as this puts you in the most powerful and safest position to stop the opposing player. To enable this ideal body placement at the point of contact a player needs to focus on the elements that make up the tackle checklist.
- Head Placement – ensure your head is to the side of the opponent and not across his body
- Foot placement – get your lead foot in as close to the ball carrier as possible
- Shoulder Contact – same foot, same shoulder to maximise power
- Arm Wrap – make a tight contact around the legs and pull back
- Leg Drive – a strong leg drive will knock your opponent off balance
Tips on Technique
Australia Skills Coach Mick Byrne, successful tackles and turnovers are about keeping your feet alive.
“When you speak to NFL coaches the players whose job it is to sack the quarterback they don’t focus on the tackle, they focus on keeping their feet alive. At all times when he’s changing direction and tracking back he keeps his feet alive. He can’t plant his feet.
One of the key things for a young player is to keep the feet alive. Once both feet plant on the ground there isn’t much else you can do. If you get your shoulder on while keeping your feet alive you’ll be able to get back up on your feet and secure the ball if that is possible.”
Sam Warburton advises to go low and get your head placement right to be effective and safe.
“The most important thing is to make sure you don’t get your head on the wrong side. A lot of concussion injuries occur because of this. I am a fan of tackling low so to hit around the knees with your shoulder and using your arms to clamp the player’s legs together is my preferred choice of tackling. It allows me to get on my feet more easily to compete for the ball or allow team mates to compete for a turnover.”
England Back Row Tom Wood talks stride length, point of contact and pillows.
“As an opponent comes toward you, you want to shorten your stride length so you don’t lose the power and lunge at the player. It’s difficult to change your feet and if he steps you and adjusts at the last minute and if you are too long in your stride length you can’t react to that. If you get your feet underneath you, shorten your stride length, let him make his move. When he does you try to have a good sink in the hips, keep your head up, and drive your front leg in between his legs as close as possible. That means you have a good foundation at the middle of his centre of gravity or below and rock him with your tackle.
“As you make impact, you chase your feet through, wrap your arms tight, and try and drive him backwards. Use his backside as a cushion, it helps you make a tight contact so you don’t swing your arm.”
“I’ve always been taught that the point of contact is about a yard beyond his body. So you don’t hit him where he stands and lunge, you imagine you are driving and hitting him a yard behind and your momentum is carrying you through the tackle. Easier said than done, especially on a moving target and one that is trying to fend you off or bump you into the floor.”
— Rugby Heaven (@NZRugbyHeaven) December 15, 2016
D = Down & Up
The aim of the tackle is to halt the opponents progress and hopefully turnover the ball to launch your team’s attack. The ‘big hit’ mentality can be tough to break in young players but I explain this can impact the effectiveness of the tackle, the safety of both players, and the ability for the tackler to compete for the ball after contact.
‘Down & Up’ refers to getting your opponent DOWN on the ground SAFELY and getting back UP to contest for the ball – only then is the tackle over. If you are on your feet you can play an active role for your team and legally compete for the ball if there is an opportunity to do so.
“Get to your feet quickly” is former Ireland Back Row Shane Jennings’ message. “Flankers should always believe that the tackle is not complete until you are back on your feet. If you are on the ground, you are out of the game and therefore not much good to your team.”
How to improve
Getting started is about building your confidence through practice as Saracens flanker Kelly Brown explains.
“I started in my back garden when I was about six and I tried to tackle my older brother who was at the time significantly bigger than I was. Get the basics of the tackle technique right, start off very low pace or start off tackling on your knees, and just gradually build up your confidence.”
As with any skill practice makes perfect and tackling is no different. Steffon Armitage suggests you want to test yourself against different opponents and in different situations in training so come game day you are ready to react.
“Developing and improving your technique comes from doing 100 tackles in training during the week. Going over and over again. Getting big guys and small guys, so you learn how to take different people down. Most of the time you go high and you bring him down and you get over the ball. With the big guys you can’t do that, they are too strong. If you go high they are just going to bump you off. So try to find the best tackle technique for different types of opponents.“
Familiarising yourself with your opponent’s running style and how others have counter acted that can make your job a bit easier. Here’s how Ireland’s Gordon D’Arcy did his homework on Australia’s Israel Folau ahead of their match-up.
“Video is a very important tool. Before we played Australia, I watched how Conrad Smith tackled Israel Folau, how he went in, how he tackled him, how he didn’t get stepped, and how he kept his feet alive. I tried to emulate that in training by getting someone who was big and rangey like Folua and just practised. Practicing good technique is crucial.”
Part 2 we will look at the attacking player’s perspective on a tackle and offer advice on how you take contact on your terms when you are in possession.
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Mens Collegiate All-Americans Head Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com