McGeechan: Embrace new tackle laws
In his Daily Telegraph column, Scottish rugby legend and former British Lions coach Sir Ian
McGeechan argues for patience over the new "zero tolerance" approach to head-high tackles.
There has been a lot of negativity about the new tackle directives, which came into effect this
week, but I, for one, am genuinely excited about them.
Sure, it is not ideal introducing a number of changes mid-season. And there will undoubtedly
be a bedding-in period, during which we are likely to see a lot of yellow and red cards handed
out, as everyone – players, coaches and referees – tries to establish where the limits of the
new rules are.
But I think, ultimately, they could have a profound and positive effect on the game. Not only will
they challenge discipline in defence, forcing players to tackle lower and be more accurate, they
will also challenge teams to be far more proactive in attack, safe in the knowledge that runners'
hands should by and large be left free to pass.
The knock-on effect of this very simple fact should, in theory, be wide-ranging. Play should
become faster, as attackers offload more.
That, in turn, will mean more one-on-one tackles on moving targets, rather than defenders
squared up, holding man and ball.
More leg tackles will mean more offloads off the floor and more isolated players, particularly in
the wider channels. Support runners will become increasingly important, the breakdown will be
contested in a totally different way and the second man in having a completely different role.
As a coach, I honestly cannot wait to see what happens. I think the next couple of weekends
will see coaches and players try to amend their practices – I would be surprised if they are not
already drilling them to tackle lower – but it will be during the Six Nations that we really see the
impact of these new directives.
It will be intriguing to see how the new laws affect the Six Nations. Not only will players and
coaches be in camp together for a sustained period, but they are the best players in their
I always enjoyed that aspect of being an international coach – elite players are able to
assimilate new ideas far more quickly.
It is in this context that I think Eddie Jones' recent comments regarding his England team,
telling his players that they should not to be afraid of losing, were fascinating.
For me, those comments were not an attempt to reduce the pressure on his squad, knowing
the unbeaten run has to come to an end some time. On the contrary, Eddie was challenging
them to raise their levels, to play outside of their comfort zone and still execute.
In theory, England are very well placed to profit from these new directives. They now have a
very stable base from which to work, there is depth in terms of the player pool, they have
confidence from their unbeaten 2016 and Eddie has a selection of ball carriers in the forwards,
as well as the backs.
Eddie Jones appears to be a man on a mission. He can choose where to attack.
The Australian has clearly had a brilliant first year in charge. He started out, by his own
admission, with a pretty limited game plan against Scotland last February.
But from that first game, he had always challenged his players. Initially, it was simply to play in
the right areas and to control games.
Then, in Australia last summer, he moved their attacking game on a bit. And, again, in the
autumn, bedding in new players, finding new ways to win.
Now he is challenging them to push on again. The new directives offer the perfect opportunity
to do that.
In fact, I think, for the northern hemisphere in general, these changes could be good news.
Contrary to the impression given at the last Rugby World Cup, I don't think there is a massive
skills gap. The Lions have proven that on numerous occasions, as did Ireland with their brilliant
performances against New Zealand in the autumn internationals just gone – that high tempo,
running game is simply the way they are used to playing.
In the northern hemisphere, we tend to focus more on the set piece. We are organised
defensively, we hit square in defence.
In Super Rugby, there are more one-on-one tackles on a moving shoulder, rather than
defenders squared up. In the short term then, these directives could favour them, as they are
more used to a faster, off-loading game.
They are already 75% of the way there.
But conversely, that means they have less margin for gain. It is going to be fascinating to see
who can adapt fastest and most successfully, and what the medium and long-term impact of
these changes will be on the game as a whole.
As I said, I'm very hopeful. What I don't want to see is a witch hunt, with referees brandishing
cards left right and centre.
They must still be able to use some common sense when applying the laws. In dynamic
situations, with players falling, things are not always black and white.
But if everything falls into place, I think it could be really positive.
The knock-on effect of what we see in the Six Nations, in terms of these new directives, will be
felt in the Premiership in due course.
Players returning from international duty will feed back and pool intelligence. There is no doubt
a few teams could do with changing things up.