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Rugby has to endure the cards if it wants to have a future

By Hamish Bidwell
Caleb Clarke was shown a red card for a dangerous airborne tackle at the weekend (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

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Rugby’s administrators can’t afford to lose their nerve here.

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In any sense.

If they abandon the current crackdown on tacklers making contact with an opponent’s head, rugby will go bankrupt.

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Not only will it cease to be a viable participation sport, lessening the volume of those who might progress to the professional ranks, but there will be a class-action payout to former players who’ve suffered brain trauma.

We have an example to follow here.

Over in the National Rugby League (NRL) they love a good crackdown. Play-the-balls, wrestling, high shots, whatever.

That competition is a fiefdom, run by a bloke called Peter V’Landys, who seems to change or re-interpret laws at a whim.

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And do you know what players and coaches do? They wait him out.

They continue to infringe, knowing all the penalties and stoppages will infuriate fans, V’Landys and sections of the media. To save the spectacle, V’Landys will deem that the torrent of penalties must cease and coaches and players will return to doing as they please.

I remember a time when office workers lit fags at their desks and we blew smoke all over barmen, waiting staff and restaurant diners. I remember not having to wear seatbelts and people routinely driving drunk.

Just as I remember how we used to ruck in rugby and ruck hard. I remember how certain schools or clubs were famed for it and that if you found yourself on the wrong side, you were going to wear it.

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One day, if we’re lucky, we’ll also remember that direct and forceful contact with the head was once part of rugby. That “tacklers” tucked their elbows into their sides and drove their shoulder into the face of a defenceless ball-carrier.

The commonplace can become the rare and then the rare a distant memory.

That’s what has to happen here.

A Super Rugby Pacific game doesn’t seem to go by without multiple yellow cards and even reds. Everyone knows that will be the consequence of contact to the head and yet no-one seems prepared to lower tackle heights.

Suspensions are almost a blessing, because players have to be rested anyway. As for playing a man down? Well, it’s safe to assume the opposition will be down to 14 any minute as well.

Last weekend’s Super Round in Melbourne was meant to be a showcase for the game. A chance to sell a bit of razzle dazzle to a relatively ignorant rugby audience.

Well, even dyed-in-the-wool fans were tired of the cards and penalties by the end.

This is where administrators have to have the courage of their convictions. They have to keep penalising and sending players off until the participants understand that things have changed.

Do we fine offenders? Maybe. Although that doesn’t appear to deter players in the NRL. They’ll happily hand over $2,000 if it spares them a fortnight on the sidelines.

This isn’t about the game going soft and taking collisions out of rugby. It’s about recognising that, as was the case when rucking still existed, that the head is sacrosanct.

Even back then, if your boot made contact with a head, you were sent off. And not for an inconsequential 20 minutes either.

Rugby has to endure this cultural shift with tackle heights if it wants to have a future.

And it might actually improve the game too.

With more legs and waist tackles, rather than this emphasis on wrapping up the football, we might see more action. More ball movement, more tries, more entertainment at a time when you feel as if rugby’s audience is dwindling.

Honestly, though, the game will cease to exist if we don’t address this now.

I watch and enjoy rugby for a multitude of reasons, but hits to the head are not one of them and I defy anyone to prove the game will suffer without them.

If administrators truly have the game’s best interests at heart, then they have to see this cultural change through.

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