The Neck Roll Tackle controversy; is it a Safe Tactic in Rugby

The Neck Roll Tackle controversy; is it a Safe Tactic in Rugby
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21: Mouritz Botha of Newcastle receives attention after a neck injury during the Aviva Premiership match between Newcastle Falcons and Northampton Saints at Kingston Park on February 21, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In the tackle area, pressure, strength and forces collide. The gladiatorial, most confrontational area of the game where onfield fitness and training technique are tools which players and coaches must fine tune. Over time, an [relatively] new tactic in the breakdown area has evolved; the Neck Roll Tackle.

The technique is best executed when a defender can grapple with an opponent, placing his or her arms around the shoulder or midriff to force that standing player off their feet. Difficult to explain without a diagram or human examples, yet it is being utilized – and penalized more so – in the modern game.

During Super Rugby and International test matches, many players have been highlighted as employing the ‘move’ to clear away a standing player at the breakdown (opposing tackler trying to secure defensive ball). Most perform it well, but any bad example can potentially cause major neck or back injury.

When it is suspected to have targeted the neck, there is often clear evidence. At the time, due to a fouled player or his/her team mates calling for the whistle. At worst, sometimes the penalized individual has used the tactic previously in the game, so has been cautioned already. But on the occasions when foul play is decided, that offending player is warned or worse; given a Yellow Card.

What fans view more often in the modern game today however, is replayed instantly on camera or on social media (above). To that extent, it can be commented on and – when the system is used effectively – the television match official (TMO) becomes involved.

Sadly, sometimes the evidence is the tackled player seen injured, or needing assistance.

That is the concern of officials and stakeholders today. With combined forces and intensity of competition, players necks and bodies can only tolerate so much pressure. While the attempt can clear-out bodies impeding the ability to retain possession certainly… is the ability to continue to play after having a neck roll tackle applied, that Last Word on Rugby now examines.

The Neck Roll Controversy; is it a Safe Tactic in Rugby

After the North Harbour v Tasman Mitre 10 Cup game, just as Glen Jackson was leaving the stadium, LWOR quickly asked him about the neck roll tackle and it’s impact. To paraphrase him, Jackson said “yeah, I’ve noticed it has become more widespread since the Rugby World Cup.”

Glen Jackson
Referee Glen Jackson makes a call during the match between Taranaki and Tasman at Yarrow Stadium on October 25, 2014 in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Asked if his own anecdotal awareness had seen more attention on the tackle technique? “Yeah, you can see players using that to shift players at the breakdown”, and he agrees that while it can be obvious, it is not something that he is watching for ‘more than any other Law breach’.

Had this tactic in rugby union been inherited from rugby league? Jackson agreed, although others might comment that rugby coaches and former-players have utilized a rolling-style technique that includes influences from Wrestling, Judo and bio-mechanics that pointed to a technique where body positions could be used to roll the player away from the ruck area.

Hands around the neck are not encouraged, as the point of the shoulders is the best fulcrum point. By then shifting weight to the side, it can remove the tackler – but if the neck is the point of pressure, then the tackler might cause an injury.

Who uses the Neck Roll Tackle? Cause and Affect

As seen in the Tweet at top of page, it is utilized by all players. The action is directed at ‘shifting bodies’ which numbers 1 to 15 are involved in. The training methods are practised by forwards, just as much as it would be by centers and outside backs.

The one common theme from the visual evidence, and comments from players, coaches and commentators -and on the instruction from World Rugby – is that any contact with the head and neck must be removed from the game.

The cause and affect is a major concern for any rugby fan. The least enjoyable aspect of watching any game, is to view a fit and healthy player being reduced to an injured party. The attention of medics and emergency staff on the field today, is focused entirely on the neck. As seen in the main picture at top of page, isolating and stabilizing an player left prone on the ground, is the primary concern.

If that is an affect from poor tackling technique – or from the impact of an high tackle or contact in the air – then it is the responsibility of coaches and stakeholders, to minimize or remove that form of tackle.

From the Referees viewpoint: Scott MacLean

Last Word on Rugby’s resident referee Scott MacLean has a view, that is representative of the man controlling the whistle.

He told LWOR “as you can imagine, it can be difficult to spot. In my opinion you have more chance seeing it as an AR (assistant referee) rather than a referee because of angles, bodie positions, and viewpoint.

“That said though you’re looking for the player cleaning-out making contact around the neck, rather than around the chest or under the arms. If you see it, its fairly elementary and you’re then deciding on what action the player doing the ‘rolling’ does? How dangerous it is to the player? [Or if one or more players are involved, as below].

MacLean continued, “generally though, if you have player trying to move an opponent by the neck you’re looking at a straight penalty to start with, and discourage the action”. That is the approach that is best – to discourage the method [and/or tactic] by team management and administration, so that it does not have repercussions on individuals; who have been encouraged to consistently use the neck roll tackle.

Discipline is a fine balance. Yet penalty counts and individual fouls, and yellow cards could also lead to further penalties; suspension or worse, so dissuading poor technique of an reckless neck roll tackle or another example, would be a negative on that teams performance.

From the Coaches viewpoint: Dan McKellar

In 2016, in an post-game interview, ACT Brumbies head coach Dan McKellar spoke his mind on the subject.

“The big one for me is the neck roll on Poey [Pocock], that’s just dangerous, we’ve got one of the world’s best flanks with his head over the ball and twisted in an awkward [position] and [nothing],” McKellar said.

“It’s really dangerous and we’ve got to start to come down on those sorts of actions.”

He is not the first head coach to highlight it, and will not be the last. Coincidentally, the player in question – David Pocock – plays in a position where by his actions, he becomes a target. Like Sam Cane or Sam Warburton, the jackal who predominantly is attempted to steal the ball.

McKellar’s presumption that the Brumbies tackler was specifically targeted, may not be 100% true – but it is consequential of that position. The role of an loose forward, and many props today, is such that they get in the firing line. Some, more often than others.

International Rugby not the stage to observe Neck Roll Tackle

The final point that needs highlighting is the International game. The stage should be one where the very best examples are displayed. Even as some percentages of advantage need to be gained, it must be exemplar.

After the recent Bledisloe Cup test, Pocock was again ‘in the wars’ His neck seemed to suffer when in the rigours of the ruck area. On numerous occasions, the focus was on the technique and tactics of the All Blacks. Receiving treatment, the pressure on Pocock especially, would be remarked on by the Wallaby.

“You feel it after games and it’s not something you probably want to think too much about,” he said. “It’ll be sore but hopefully it’s nothing serious.

“It’s something the refs had said they were going to really sort of look at. There’s been some penalties”, and while others might call the target a pest in the breakdown, the type of tackling might also be queried.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen admired Pocock’s skill and bravery but conceded his chance of injury was heightened by the way he played. “It’s no wonder he’s got a sore neck,” he told 1News Sport.

“To move him out, he’s going to take some contact. He understands that, that’s why he won’t be complaining about it”. Hansen said post game that his players didn’t set out to inflict an neck roll tackle. But one might suspect that Super Rugby training and years of practice, might be hard to break during the International window.

While it is as much a trend in modern rugby, where any offensive tackler is required to be shifted. the viewer must be confident that the actions of the players is to the letter of the law. So the use of the neck roll tackle is one area – like the challenge on players in the air – must be a focus area.

A focus that should be made clear earlier, rather than after any player goes down with an serious neck injury.


“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images


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