"It's a reality": Cheika admits Wallabies' tackle height problem, training fixes made

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

Michael Cheika conceded the Wallabies’ problem with tackle height is a “reality” at the Rugby World Cup and they’ve changed defensive techniques in training this week to mitigate the issue.

But centre Samu Kerevi is adamant he won’t be changing his carrying style when he returns to the field against Georgia on Friday, despite being penalised for making contact with an opponent’s neck with his forearm while running the ball against Wales.

“Nah, I am just going to carry on as normal,” Samu said. 

"I have said it before, I have been doing that for most of my career so again, I can only control what I can control.”

The Wallabies are looking to control their discipline far better, though, and at the top of the “to fix” list is the number of penalties for high contact in tackles.

The Wallabies were penalised four times in the opening half against Uruguay for contact with the head or neck of rivals, and they lost Adam Coleman and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to the sin bin for cumulative foul play penalties.

Those sanctions came after Reece Hodge was suspended for three weeks for a dangerous high tackle on Fiji’s Peceli Yato in game one.

Cheika and the Wallabies defended themselves in the wake of Hodge’s ban, and particularly against allegations they were not across the World Rugby Framework for high contract. 

Players and the coach said they were not taught to tackle high, but rather in the middle of the body, and they rejected suggestions of a systemic problem with tackle heights.

The number of penalties awarded against them shows referees may already think otherwise, and whether he thinks that fair or not, Cheika said the Wallabies had made moves to remove the "picture" of high tackling this week.

"We are addressing that, we have some ideas on how we can be better at that,” Cheika said. 

"Maybe because no matter how you see the pictures, the penalties are real, so you have got to do something, because whether it is truth or perception, we are getting the arm raised against us and we are losing players to the bin, for things that we shouldn’t be. 

"So we have to improve our tackle area as a whole. Just getting a bit better there. 

"We have worked on some things, I am not going to go into detail here but we have worked on a few things that we want to try and do in this game and we’ll see if they work for us, to give us a better defensive line and better height in the tackle.”

Cheika is often at odds with referees but it appears he is now in firm agreement with the man who gave his team the two yellow cards in Oita. 

After the second card, referee Mathieu Raynal said to Michael Hooper on-field: “Your players have to change their behaviour.”

Cheika said he was happy with the Wallabies’ defence at the tournament, overall, having only given away one try involving straight-up missed tackles.

“But I think we can still be better in that area,” he said.

"Both in the way we are defending and the tackle heights itself. It’s a reality, we have to deal with it.”

After Kerevi was pinged for a dangerous ball carry, it was pointed from within World Rugby that that his crime had been mentioned to coach’s at a pre-tournament briefing and was one of several areas they were watching.

There have been no similar penalties at the tournament since, and Kerevi says he won't let the one episode in Tokyo make him second-guess his style.

But Kerevi conceded the Wallabies had been working hard to stay vigilant and defending in a way that doesn’t attract the referee's whistle, or worse, collection of cards.

"For us we tend to go high when are not staying in our structure and our principles  for our game, especially defensively,” Kerevi said. 

"When we are going through our principles, our tackles will be fine. It’s just we are sitting back at times and we are creating that picture for those high tackles, and we’re reaching or whatever it is. But when we are moving forward as a team, we’re really happy with it.

"Guys are working extremely hard at it at that mid-axe kind of focus. No-one is going out there trying to tackle high. 

"Sometimes it is just the nature of the game and the nature of the beast, that certain runs, guys dipping their heads, we can’t control that. All we can control is how we prepare for the tackle itself.”

The majority of penalties for high contact appear to be awarded against tall.  guys, but Cheika said he wouldn’t go as far as not select a certain player with a bad record, to remove the risk of getting pinged.

"No-one is prone to giving away penalties,” he said.

"It is just the style of defence. If that means we have got to target a different area in the tackle, and what we have to do at the tackle, and how we use our on-ballers as well at the tackle, is important. That’s all part of it.”

Cheika said improving discipline across the board was crucial for the Wallabies to make better starts in games. They've been poor in all three opening halves at the World Cup.

"When you look back at the games, one of the key things that has hurt us is penalties, in key moments, snuffing out momentum," he said.

Some of them really poor ones for us, and that’s an area, we have to go there targeting zero in that area.

"Because it’s not just the net effect of that, it’s the stopping of the momentum that we’re building. We have a tough pool and we have scored a good number of tries, so we’re playing with some good momentum around attack and I think that’s hurting us in attack.

"It’s not totally in our control but we have to make sure we get on top of the things we can control in that area.

Australia takes on Georgia on Friday October 11 at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, kicking off at 7:15pm local, 9:15pm AEDT, LIVE on Foxtel, Network Ten and via RUGBY.com.au RADIO, Rugby Xplorer and Amazon Alexa.