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Can you feel it? Rugby's coming...





The South African rugby season begins in January this year. Take a while to digest that. The 10th year of the Varsity Cup gets us under way on Monday the 30th.

For SuperSport, of course, the rugby season never really ends, but it feels like it is formally under way in mid-January every year, when commentators, producers and presenters meet to discuss the year ahead.

It's one of those feel good gatherings where people you haven't seen since October discuss the excesses of the festive season. Indeed, due to the vagaries of scheduling, there are people who only see each other at these meetings. Only Facebook unites them in the interim, it seems.

For many years now the meeting has featured a presentation by one of the South African Rugby Union's referees. Andre Watson thoroughly enjoyed performing before us, while Mark Lawrence, the ophthalmologist from Mpumalanga, did duty in 2015 and 2016.

This year it was the turn of rising star, Cwengile Jadazweni, and I wonder whether anyone had warned him that he was about to enter the lion's den.

Former players share a dislike for any attempt to alter the laws prevalent when they were young and fit. Unfortunately, the number of changes implemented on an annual basis by World Rugby, means that every season begins with angry disdain.

This year the target of our disgust is the new "zero tolerance" for the high tackle.

It was Cwengile's task to persuade us that the lawmakers had altruistic motives. He told us that 79% of injuries in the modern professional game come from the tackle, and that 50% of tackles that cause injury are made around the shoulders or higher.

So World Rugby believes that by eliminating the high tackle it can produce a cleaner, faster game.

Several seasons ago the 'hit' was removed from the scrum engagement process and, according to the stats, catastrophic neck injuries have diminished hugely as a direct result. The aim is to do the same for the high tackle, but the proof, as always, will be in the pudding.

The majority of former players at our meeting didn't like it. A series of clips shown on the big screen by Cwengile to illustrate his point were fiercely debated.

"What if you can't avoid it?" Tough.

"How do you stop a pick and go at close quarters?" Be more careful.

A clip of a tackle that brought a yellow card for Leolin Zas of the Stormers last year polarised arguments around the room. Zas was chasing a high ball and at the moment he was going to leap in the air, he slipped. As he slid forward his outstretched arm made contact with the defender, who jack-knifed and landed on his head.

There were those, backs mostly, who would have given a red card. Others, forwards mostly, thought that it was accidental and that even a penalty seemed a little harsh.

The minority report came from one of our producers, who argued that by leaving the ground, the defender had invited harm upon himself. Stop players jumping for the high ball and see what happens. I have to say, I have some sympathy for this viewpoint, but I was in the minority.

Time will tell whether it turns out to be another three month wonder, or if we really can remove the high tackle form the game.

However, the northern hemisphere is dealing with the new focus already. Jonathan Davies, the former Wales and Lions flyhalf, gave his opinion on Sky's weekly magazine show recently. Having watched a game where several yellow cards were distributed for high tackles he was asked what he thought of the referee.

"Crap," he said.


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