Three-storey Rory admits high-tackle crackdown now always on his mind

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

For most of Rory Arnold’s life, standing 208cm tall has been a major asset on a rugby field. In 2016, it made him the tallest ever Wallaby.

But being NBA-sized now appears to be a decent-sized liability too, under World Rugby’s crackdown on high contact with the head and neck; which has been in full force at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Any contact made by a tackler’s shoulder or arm to a rival’s head, even unintentionally, will see you penalised, sin-binned or even sent off and banned.

When you’re six-foot-nine, your shoulder is attached at the dangerous height of a regular man’s head, so taller men are prone to getting it wrong more than shorter teammates. 

Adam Coleman (204cm) and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (198cm) were both yellow-carded against Uruguay for high tackles, and Arnold found himself under scrutiny in Super Rugby often for making tackles that were deemed too high by referees.

Many players at the World Cup have publicly brushed off the high contact crackdown as a concern, but like Michael Cheika admitting it was an issue requiring attention on Tuesday, Arnold conceded the neon-lit threat of giving away penalties - or worse - was definitely now on his mind.

"I have been working on it. It is a point in my game that I have to think about a bit. Over the last few weeks, there have been a lot of cards thrown out there and it puts a lot of pressure on your side,” Arnold said. 

"In big games, or any games, I am just thinking about getting that body height down and being really disciplined in that area. Because it puts a whole lot of pressure on the team, like we did last week, it wasn’t really perfect there. Playing with 14 blokes for a while there.

"For me, it is just about working on those things at training and bringing it into the game.”

Like or lump it, big guys have to work harder at going low in tackles than most and many penalties against them are the result of them are lazy ones.

But tackling around the knees all day isn’t optimal, either.

Arnold, Izack Rodda and Coleman, in particular, like to defend in tight channels with a ball-smothering tackle that is followed by aggressively driving or dragging the ball-runner, to deny the gain-line and momentum.

When done right, and legally, it is a vital too. Teams with dominant packs, like the Springboks, New Zealand and England, use their locks and backorders to ensure the negative gain-line as often as possible.

Arnold said striking the right balance between being aware of high contact, and displaying aggression, was a tricky task.

"It’s a hard question because you can overthink it as well, and stop playing your natural game,” he said. 

"At the end of the day I want to play aggressive and that’s the way I play. But at the end of the day I will be thinking about that as well: get low, don’t give any silly penalties away. And that will take care of itself.

"I guess it is mainly those taller boys who are getting pinged for the high shots. As locks and taller men, we have to focus on getting our shots down. Because at the end of the day, the rule is no contact with the head, and it’s about player safety. So at the end of the day, players safety is the most important thing. It is up to us to get our tackles down and keep working on that.”