Johnny Sexton criticises RFU for lowering tackle height for amateurs
- Andy Farrell says players could become ‘sitting ducks’
- Owen Farrell is more supportive of the change
The Ireland captain, Johnny Sexton, has criticised the Rugby Football Union’s decision to lower the legal tackle height to the waist at amateur level in England next season. Sexton’s views were echoed by Andy Farrell, the Ireland head coach and former England assistant, who said players could become “sitting ducks” at greater risk of injury.
The RFU has faced a fierce backlash since last week’s announcement with the England internationals Joe Marler and Lewis Ludlow joining amateur players and coaches in condemning the move. The England Test cricket captain, Ben Stokes, even voiced his disapproval and an online petition attracted 30,000 signatures in a day.
Much of the criticism stems from how taller players will have to adapt with fears of an exodus from the game when numbers are already dwindling. At the Six Nations launch in London on Monday Sexton said: “I don’t agree with it. There’s no point in sitting on the fence, is there? I just think you’ve got tall people that play the game and it should be their decision as to how they tackle.
“Of course we need to get the head shots out of the game, but the tackles we really need to take out of the game are the reckless, out of control, sprinting out of the line.
“Hitting someone there [the head], I don’t think should be an option. It’s not like you can’t get concussed by chopping someone’s knees. I see a hell of a lot of concussions from people getting their head on the wrong side, a knee to the temple or a hip even to the side of the head.”
Farrell was equally vocal on the potential dangers of such extreme changes. “It’s super important that what has to come with [the changes] is the correct coaching, the correct technique, because of the reasons Johnny has said.
“If you are ever just saying to a kid ‘you need to tackle lower’, then you become even more vulnerable in my opinion. If you’re just sitting there with your arms in front, trying to wrap, with your head down etc you’re a sitting duckThe coaching and technique of how it’s applied to tackling below the waist is absolutely crucial, otherwise we’re going to have a serious problem.”
The England captain, Owen Farrell, and head coach, Steve Borthwick, were more supportive, however, endorsing efforts to make the game safer with more than 55 amateur players having joined the class-action lawsuit against rugby’s governing bodies – World Rugby, the RFU and Welsh Rugby Union – in alleging they were not protected from permanent brain injuries.
Farrell, who is serving a three-match ban for a dangerous tackle, said: “In terms of where the game’s going and trying to make it safer, the RFU are trying to make sure it’s going in the right direction and we want to be at the forefront of that. We want to play as hard and safe as we possibly can and I want to be part of that.”
Borthwick also gave his qualified backing to the changes. He said: “There is a long-term process to keep filtering the younger players to make sure they come through to become adult players and to get others to come back to the game and keep them in the game.
“Do I think that initiatives to ensure we keep the essence of this game, that we protect the essence of the game and make it safe – am I supportive of initiatives that have that intent? Yes, I am. I am also supportive of trying things and if it needs to change, we tweak and we change. We learn as we go.”
Farrell is available to face Scotland in England’s Six Nations opener on 4 February despite his ban after the RFU exploited a loophole to ensure he is free to captain his side, having completed World Rugby’s coaching intervention programme. “It’s not nice to be in that situation,” he said. “Especially in that period between not quite not knowing what is happening.
“But all that I can concentrate on, as soon as the squad is announced, is how excited I am to get together with this team, to get going. Whatever decision was made, I would have accepted that decision and made sure I came ready to get on with what’s in front of us.”