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Spear tackles again

Only Nonu cited

Ma'a Nonu has been cited for his tackle on Gordon D'Arcy in which the New Zealand centre lifted the Irish centre off his feet. D'Arcy fell to ground and received treatment. The referee spoke to Nonu and penalised him. We shall discuss this – and four other cases over the weekend. Four! At least four.

The citing commissioner has cited Nonu who will appear at a disciplinary on Tuesday in London. None of the other four incidents were deemed worthy of a citing.

The word being used with reference to this sort of tackle is the 'spear tackle'. There is nothing in the Laws of the Game about a spear tackle in so many words, but Law 10 talks about dangerous tackles.

Law 10.4 e) Dangerous tackling. A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously.

A player must not tackle (or try to tackle) an opponent above the line of the shoulders. A tackle around the opponent’s neck or head is dangerous play.

A ‘stiff-arm tackle’ is dangerous play. A player makes a stiff-arm tackle when using a stiff arm to strike an opponent.

Playing a player without the ball is dangerous play.

A player must not tackle an opponent whose feet are off the ground.

Exception: A player is permitted to attempt to tackle a player who is in possession of the ball and is in the act of diving in an attempt to score a try.
Penalty: Penalty Kick

Advantage may be played, but if the offence prevents a probable try, a penalty try must be awarded.

(f) Playing an opponent without the ball. Except in a scrum, ruck or maul, a player must not hold, or push, or charge into, or obstruct an opponent not carrying the ball.
Penalty: Penalty Kick

(g) Dangerous charging. A player must not charge or knocks down an opponent carrying the ball without trying to grasp that player.
Penalty: Penalty Kick

(h) Tackling the jumper in the air. A player must not tackle or tap or push or pull the foot or feet of an opponent jumping for the ball in a line-out or in open play.
Penalty: Penalty Kick

There is nothing there which specifies the 'spear tackle'. "Tackling a player whose feet are off the ground" is far too lax a definition. In athletics the difference between running and walking is that in running both feet are off the ground at once. It is nonsensical to think that one could not tackle a player running with the ball in rugby football.

In a tackle of the spear variety there is momentum. The ball-carrier has forward momentum. Even if he is stationary when waiting, the tackler drives forward into the oncoming ball-carrier. There is clash of two people going in opposite directions. Going upwards is natural.

It is a low tackle, below the waist, which is admirable.

There is nothing which says that a player is not allowed to drive upwards in the tackle.

In the Ireland-New Zealand match, Gordon D'Arcy runs at Ma'a Nonu who is stationary. Nonu bends and puts his shoulder into D'Arcy's middle, lifting him up. D'Arcy topples over and goes to ground, the top of his body first.

Nonu does not seem to drive him downwards at all. His shoulder has no contact with D'Arcy in the downward sequence, nor do his arms, just his hands. It seems thus more a case of letting go.

Later in the same match Sione Lauaki of New Zealand passes to his left. After he has passed, Shane Horgan, who was angry with Nonu earlier, lifts Lauaki up in the air, feet above head and down Lauaki goes on his back, angry with Horgan.

Horgan was not cited after the match. Maybe it was because Doug Howlett of New Zealand scored a try in that movement.

In the match between Wales and Fiji, what happens is defined as a spear tackle by the referee. Matthew Watkins of Wales runs with the ball into a crouching Mosese Luveitasau who puts his shoulder into Watkins, lifts him up and dumps him. There is Welsh anger.

The referee penalises immediately and consults the touch judge.

Referee: "I judged that a spear tackle. Did you get a number?"

The touch judge did not.

The referee then speaks to the Fijian captain: "I judged that the tackle of the tackler was a spear tackle. That's dangerous – feet above head and driven into the ground."

If that is what happened – driven into the ground – then it is worse than what Nonu did. But Luveitasau was not cited.

Jonathan Davies the commentator said: "I don't think that's a spear tackle. I know technically his feet are above his head but that's a very, very good tackle – good body position, driving him back. I don't think the intent was there to spear-tackle. A spear tackle is when you turn him and drill him into the ground head first."

But the referee had defined it as a spear tackle, lacking only the number of the perpetrator for further action. But the citing commissioner could have got a number quite easily and cited him.

When England played Australia, Jamie Noon of England ran forward. George Smith of Australia got him high on the thigh and toppled him over so that he landed with his upper body first on the ground.

There were other players nearby, which may have clouded the view and may be why there was no comment and not even a penalty – let alone a citing.

When Canada played France in Nantes, Ed Fairhurst, the Canadian fly-half dashed ahead to where Frédéric Michalak was waiting. Michalak put his shoulder into Fairhurst and lifted him up. Fairhurst went head first to ground.

There were other players nearby, which may be why there was no comment and not even a penalty – let alone a citing.

The only one of the five incidents that produced a citing was the Nonu tackle.

One wonders why.

Was Nonu's tackle really worse than those of the other four?

Did crowd reaction play a part?

Was Nonu being cited for what had happened to Brian O'Driscoll?

Possibly the PC thing for the referee to have done in Dublin would have been to have shown Nonu a card, but that may not necessarily have been the right thing to have done. It would be tough to card Nonu for what happened to O'Driscoll, or card Nonu because the crowd was upset, or card Nonu because it was again a New Zealand action on an Irishman. The card would have to be on the merits of Nonu's action alone.

It's certainly an area that rugby will need to make clearer, as it tried to do at its conference in Lensbury where the spear tackle was well discussed, led by Paddy O'Brien. The referees in all these November matches were there.

Rugby League – we are allowed to mention it nowadays and even play it – has it defined. It says:

Spear tackle

Application: No defenders, during the course of a tackle, are permitted to vertically lift the ball-carrier.
If a vertical lift is anticipated (by the referee) or is obvious, i.e. both feet of the ball-carrier have left the ground, the referee must immediately blow his/her whistle to prevent the tackle from continuing. (This is not to be confused with a tackle that, in the same motion, “knocks” a player off his feet).

Application: A tackle that results in the ball-carrier being lifted and remaining off the ground while the tackler takes steps to drive the player in any direction, is an infringement. Law Book Reference: Section 15, Law 1 (d), Notes 1 (d), Page 38.

Definition of 1. A player is guilty of misconduct if he:
(a) trips, kicks or strikes another player.
(b) when effecting or attempting to effect a tackle makes contact with the head or neck of an opponent intentionally, recklessly or carelessly.
(c) drops knees first on to an opponent who is on the ground
(d) uses any dangerous throw when effecting a tackle.

Dangerous throw (d) If, in any tackle of, or contact with, an opponent that player is so lifted that he is placed in a position where it is likely that the first part of his body to make contact with the ground will be his head or neck (“the dangerous position”), then that tackle or contact will be deemed to be a dangerous throw unless, with the exercise of reasonable care, the dangerous position could not have been avoided.

That is a degree of clarity Rugby Union could do with and is likely to get following the O'Driscoll affair in New Zealand.

Let's just say:

1. it is not illegal in rugby union football to lift a player when tackling him.
2. It is not illegal in rugby union football to drive a player back in tackling him.

If rugby union football wants to make such actions illegal, it should say so.

But there is still the onus on the referee to exercise discretion and judgement of what is a dangerous tackle.

It's not the getting hurt that makes it dangerous. Brett Cockbain of Wales is injured enough to be out of action for a long time and the tackle on him was pretty innocuous.

The referee in making his judgement does not have slow motion or frame by frame replay to help him decide there on the spot the sanction he should take against a dangerous tackle. Would it not be an advantage to have the spear tackle, or whatever rugby chooses to call it, clearly defined?


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