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Tank Lanning: How rugby is tackling change and changing tackles

Are new laws and interpretations of the rules helping to change rugby for the better? Or is all the tweaking and tinkering more a case of treating the symptoms than getting to grips with the real issues on the field of play?

By Tank Lanning*

“Adapt or die” is a well-used cliché in the world of business, perhaps most often by those types that enjoy trotting out gems like “The only constant is change”.

And while cliché-speak is right up there with open mouthed popcorn crunchers in movie houses, there is of course merit and truth to them.

Retailers making use of the Internet to drive e-commerce. Marketers making use of influencers on Social Media in order to drive brand recognition. Builders using roof tiles made of solar panels in order for home owners to become less reliant on Eskom.

A new product or new technology comes along, and it’s those who adapt the fastest, or who adapt to how it will influence society fastest, that win.

Those who don’t, die.

One set of people needing to adapt big time this year, are those wanting to make a tackle on a rugby field. World Rugby has taken a zero-tolerance stance on contact with the head, putting the onus of responsibility on the tackler, and telling referees to police it vigilantly and aggressively.

The tough sanctions apply even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. Nothing round the neck in 2017, and this also applies to grabbing and rolling or twisting around the head/neck area when cleaning out at the ruck.

Read also: Changes to the rugby laws – will it speed up the game and curb dangerous play?

The Northern Hemisphere got the first look at what it would mean to the game as referees issued a slew of yellow and red cards in the first few rounds of the Champions Cup. Ex Bok centre Frans Steyn was one of the many to see red for his tackle on Johnny Sexton. Frustrated coaches gave it the thumbs-down.

But that was mainly due to referees interpreting the law implementation differently, rather than the actual law. In itself one of the biggest issues in the game given how complex we have made it by adding new laws or new law interpretations each year and then asking referees – subjective by nature as human beings – to enforce them.

But it’s this constant tinkering with the game that worries me. There is a big difference between adapting and tinkering, with the latter often about treating the symptoms rather than the actual issue at hand.

Other tinkerings happening in 2016 include tweaks to the penalty try, how advantage is used, kicking for touch after the final whistle, how players in touch with ball in hand are treated, and uncontested scrums. Some good, some not so good.

But might we eventually tinker the game into another sport entirely?

The new law around the scrum engagement (along with others being tested in 2017), together with the zero tolerance for tackles and clean outs around the neck are for good reason – player safety. And that really is about adapting or dying.

Concussion and, in the long term, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are proper issues in rugby. Not only do World Rugby need to limit their exposure to future class-action lawsuits, but also oversee a sport that mothers are happy to see their young kids playing.

For a sport to grow, it needs young players coming through the ranks. It needs mothers to believe that while accidents happen, everything is being done to make it as safe as possible.

Two potential unintended consequences?

Initially, plenty players in the bin, giving the rest a lot more space to play in. Perhaps the reason a lot of the teams took part in the Brisbane Tens this year?

The long-term result might be far more positive as waist and leg level tackles become the norm, so giving attacking players the space in which to offload in the tackle a lot more. Might coaches starting picking a Warren Whiteley ahead of a Willem Alberts as handling the offload – and getting the ball wide quickly – becomes more important than the clean out at the breakdown?

There is a big difference between tinkering and adapting, yet both come with unintended consequences – some good, some bad.

Ultimately, you want a sport that appeals to fans and players, as that will then appeal to sponsors and broadcasters. Tinkering tends to happen with short term goals in mind, while the adaptive stuff is comes as a result of some clever, long term panning. Bring on the latter.

  • Tank is an ex Western Province and SA Schools tighthead prop who had to quit the game early because of a neck injury. He started Sport24 and built it into the biggest sport website in the country before joining New Media as their Digital Evangelist. He now runs the Vodacom rugby account for New Media, which includes a website and stats app. Tank founded the Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health and Kickoff websites for Touchline Media before completing a Publishing on the Web course through Stanford while on a three month sabbatical at a Naspers company in Palo Alto in San Francisco. Tank writes a weekly rugby column for Sport24, MC’s various Q&A functions, and is often called upon by the likes of Etv, Cape Talk, 5fm and SAfm for his opinion on all things rugby. His Blog, Front Row Grunt, is an award winning one, while his Tweets from @frontrowgrunt are known to get South Africa’s rugby community talking.
  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.
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