‘If a clear out is illegal then we need to referee that and get it out of the game’

SEÁN O’BRIEN, AS he has done before, was the first to stand up and voice his concern. Poachers need protecting was his message to referees last summer. And the issue of lazy or in some cases, deliberate, side entry has not gone away. Injuries to Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy in recent weeks have reinforced how dangerous it can be. 

While the breakdown is an integral, and fascinating, part of the game as players and teams compete for the ball, the contest has become increasingly precarious for defenders, who put themselves in dangerously vulnerable positions over the ball as they attempt to jackal.

JVDF had groin surgery last month. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Van der Flier is crocked for three months having been hit from the side by a French player during Ireland’s Six Nations win at the Aviva Stadium. He tore his groin and required surgery, but got away lightly in comparison with Leavy’s horrific knee injury. 

“To miss an opportunity to play in a World Cup in Japan is haunting my thoughts,” Leavy, who faces a long and complex road back, said. The incident wasn’t too dissimilar to Paul O’Connell’s career-ending injury against France back in 2015.

It’s the role of the openside to attack opposition ball post-tackle, but equally, teams place huge emphasis on ensuring quick ball at the breakdown, leading to players hitting rucks with an aggressive mindset. Hit the man, take him off his feet and ultimately out of the equation.

It’s all part of modern rugby, but much of what we see at the breakdown is not within the laws of the game. Side entry, players off their feet, and taking ‘three or four free shots’ at the poacher. 

“It’s one against three or four usually and they’re smacking you at force, you’re in a stable position. That’s where people can get hurt. My point is, how many hits do you want us to survive?” O’Brien said last August. 

There have been a number of suggestions as to how referees can protect the poacher more, including limiting the number of players teams can commit to a ruck, while others have called on referees simply apply the law by penalising players off their feet or with their shoulders below hip height. 

According to World Rugby’s Law Book, players joining the ruck ‘must bind onto a team-mate or an opposition player’ but even when the jackaler is fully legal, on their feet and in control of their body weight, opposition players are still clearing out in an illegal manner. 

Nigel Owens says referees are more aware of the increased brutality of the breakdown zone and, working in tandem with their assistants and Television Match Officials, are focused on identifying and penalising acts of foul play in that particular facet of the game, just as they have done with aerial challenges and the neck roll in recent times.

“Rugby is a hugely physical game and it’s probably more physical now than it has ever been,” the Welsh official, speaking at the launch of the Union Cup 2019 in Dublin this afternoon, said.

“The players are bigger, they’re stronger and some of the contacts are massive. All you can do as guardians of the games and as a referee of the game, is referee the laws and make sure if there are instances of foul play, it’s dealt with.

“If a player goes flying into a contact area leading with his shoulder and with no attempt to clear out, then you deal with them. And then most players are sent off accordingly. It is, unfortunately, the nature of the game, there are going to be injuries, but as long as we referees make sure it’s a safe as it possibly can be and we apply the laws and deal with the illegalities of the game, that’s all we can do.

Owens says referees are clamping down on illegal clear outs. Source: Alex Davidson/INPHO

“If a clear out is illegal then we as referees need to referee that and deal with it and get it out of the game. That’s all we can do. The game is evolving all the time, the guardians of the game and the various people who look after it, they’re always looking at what needs to be improved and what laws need to be changed if there is a safety issue.

“That’s a continuing process all the time as the game is evolving. I’m very confident people are doing that, and they’re looking at the game and if they feel something needs to be changed within the laws, it will happen then. Player safety is paramount and it’s the most important thing for a referee to bear in mind when refereeing the game.”

Owens admits referees need to be strict on determining what constitutes legal and illegal play at the breakdown and impose severe sanctions for players found guilty of putting an opponent in danger. 

“What we need to remember is that most of the rucking and clear outs are legal,” he continued. “Most of them are. The ones that are not, it’s up to us to make sure they’re spotted. It is difficult to see it [at the time] but we do have the technology and if the TMO does see one as an illegal clear out, then he will highlight it for you.

“We become aware of it if it becomes a trend, yeah, but most of the contact area is legal, the ones that are not we need to make sure that we pick them up and referee accordingly. That’s our responsibility.”

He added: “We’re doing all we can in addressing that. That’s for us as referees to apply the laws to and we’re strict on it and that will, in turn, help change the player behaviour.

“It’s just an ongoing process all the time really but I think the important message is that people can rest assured that everyone involved in the game is doing everything they can to ensure it is safe for people to play. We want to see the big hits, it’s part of the game, but we want to see the big hits that are legal and not the ones that are not.”

Nigel Owens today launched the Union Cup Dublin 2019, Europe’s biggest LGBT+ inclusive rugby tournament which will be held in DCU from the 7-9 June. Standing shoulder to shoulder to promote diversity and inclusion in rugby is Irish women’s international Lindsay Peat, former Irish international, Gordon D’arcy and Minister Katherine Zappone.

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