Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening Post
In my last column before Christmas I covered the incoming directive to referees about the policing of high tackles.
At that point referees were to concentrate on the existing laws with a view to a zero tolerance towards those players making dangerous and direct contact with the head of an opponent.
Straight away some fans stated that the game had gone soft and that the now regular stopping of games was disrupting the flow of matches and making it less of a spectacle.
That phrase – the game has gone soft – drives me to distraction.
I suggest anyone pedalling that view of the game laces up their boots and steps on to the field to see for themselves. The game is certainly not soft but officiating the game properly is a must.
There are two parts to the current situation that require consideration.
Firstly, the approach to the game by coaches and administrators that has led to the need for this area of the game to be looked at.
Secondly, the approach of officials refereeing by themes is equally part of the problem.
If we take the first of those points, how have we got to this?
When I was growing up and learning the game, I was taught the textbook tackle was to take down your opponent around the legs with your head safely tucked in behind the falling player whilst using your arms and shoulders to take the player to ground.
Safety for both the tackler and the tackled player were paramount.
As the game went professional and players started to increase in size, suddenly the world tackle was replaced by the word “hit”.
It was no longer about simply stopping players, now it was all about stopping players dead in their tracks and ensuring their momentum was repelled rather than harnessed.
As a result, the body level at which tackles were being made started to rise. A leg tackle was far too passive and needed to be directed towards the upper body of players in possession.
Given how important this area was could be measured in the importance given to the employment of defence coaches. Be they from rugby league or gridiron, every club needed a dedicated defence coach.
In an instant the game changed from the traditional ethos of using the ball to create time and space to score tries to being about physicality, defensive organisation and of course the all-important “hits”.
The game now reflects that ethos and all laws, interpretation of laws and the management of games have changed to cater for this new normal.
One example of this is the number of players now involved in games.
When the game went professional the use of replacements was limited.
Over the time we have moved the ability to replace half a team during matches and even rolling substitutes at various levels.
I have always been against this move to unlimited substitutes.
To me it has led to one thing – bigger players who only need be involved in a game for shorter periods but who can essentially just bring greater force into the contact areas of the game.
After all, the phrase “impact from the bench” says it all.
The sight of 24 stone French prop Uini Atonio lumbering on to the field for 25-30 minutes just to smash players in contact leaves me bemused as to what the game has become.
I doubt old Uini would be happy to carry around his massive bulk if he had to go for a full 80 minutes.
He would also find his ability to make the old style of leg tackle more difficult if he cannot manoeuvre his bulk into the correct body position.
He would quickly become a defensive liability and lighter more mobile players would be selected instead.
The second part to all this is how officials referee the game.
One thing that top officials are currently hanging their collective hat on is that what we are seeing in terms of the high tackle directive is nothing new in terms of the laws of the game.
Essentially they are just enforcing the laws correctly.
Hmmm – perhaps if we didn’t get away from this approach to officiating in the first place we might find that the laws of the game already point the way to how the game should be approached and played.
As I have said before in this column, the game gets itself into a mess when officials decide to manage games rather than apply the laws.
We have already had to get back to correctly applying the laws of the game at the maul and the breakdown when we found that “managed” refereeing was taking the game down the wrong road.
Ask any player or fan one of their biggest bug bears about the current officiating and the majority will talk about the farce that happens at the scrum.
Feeding the ball has become a stain on the game and there is no need for it.
This ignoring the laws is also happening in other parts of the game. At re-starts it seems that we now allow players to be in front of the kicker to chase, whilst I have a suspicion that enforcing a straight throw at the lineout is also being reduced.
It has been refreshing to have top officials such as Wayne Barnes come out this week and explain the approach they are adopting.
But it is all so unnecessary.
The answer is already written clearly in the laws of the game.
Apply those laws clearly and consistently and the grey areas of interpretation and consistency will be resolved at a stroke.