Chris Hewett: Ban on 'gang-tackling' would curb rising casualties

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The Independent Online

Increasingly concerned by the ever rising number of injuries affecting top-flight professional players – of the 32-man England squad selected by Martin Johnson in July, only 20 were still standing this time last week – Twickenham officials are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the International Rugby Board's latest medical conference, which begins in nine days' time. In particular, they want to see whether the experts can come up with workable methods of depowering the tackle and making life just a little safer at the ruck.

Figures published in this newspaper a couple of years ago showed that at Premiership level and above, up to 25 per cent of a squad will be injured at any one time. A significant proportion of those injuries were occurring in training, but while the numbers relating to incidents on the practice field have remained constant, there has been a rise in injuries during matches. According to Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham, the modern trend of "gang-tackling", where a ball-carrying player is hit by two or more opponents intent on preventing him offloading by dislodging the ball, is one of the principal reasons. Some want to see this practice banned.

There is also a serious issue at the breakdown area. Old-fashioned rucking, which featured two or more players bound to each other moving past the ball on the floor, was quietly outlawed by IRB members because boots were routinely placed on the bodies of those laying prone after a tackle. It was, they decided, bad for the image of the game. The result? The current "static ruck", which sees players stopping in front of the ball rather than continuing beyond it. Frequently off their feet, they are wide open to the worst effects of any high-impact collision.

The horrible injury suffered by the Wales tight-head prop Adam Jones during the second South Africa-Lions Test in Pretoria last summer was the inevitable consequence of the demise of the traditional ruck. As Jones' fellow Lion, the hooker Matthew Rees, said after that match: "Old-style rucking was more dynamic. These days, you can be off your guard, not expecting a hit, when suddenly you get a 19st lock coming at you and wiping you out. I think it should be looked at again. There's nothing wrong with a few boots at the ruck. It's probably a lot safer than the situation we have now."

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