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The High Ball

After a promising start to his International career Scotland’s new No 10 Finn Russell was brought back down to earth with a bump after receiving a yellow card for doing just that to his Welsh counterpart Dan Biggar in this year’s Six Nations.

The Scotland Wales clash at Murrayfield was a nervous affair, with both sides looking for their first win of the campaign after disappointing results in their opening encounters. Thirty minutes in and tensions boiled over when the No 10s clashed going for a high ball. Dan Biggar who had chased down his own kick, was jumping for the ball when Russell, who was focused solely on the ball, lost sight of the man in the air and caught his opponents legs, bringing the Welsh fly half to ground.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWIOPJIZpvc

He received a yellow card for ‘tackling the jumper in the air’ under Law 10.4 which states;

“A player must not tackle nor tap, push or pull the foot or feet of an opponent jumping for the ball in a lineout or in open play.”

                http://laws.worldrugby.org/index.php?highlight=in%20the%20air&law=10.4

His sanction was increased after the game to a two-week ban to which his club coach Gregor Townsend felt compelled to respond to on Twitter

https://twitter.com/gregortownsend/status/568095981935464448

Townsend called for clarification on the laws following the decision to extend the ban, which he told The Scotsman newspaper (http://www.scotsman.com/sport/rugby/latest/gregor-townsend-clarify-ball-in-the-air-laws-1-3697356) was a “watershed moment in the law”. He wasn’t alone in questioning the decision, the incident caused much debate on what Russell’s intentions were (officially reckless rather than deliberate) and how the laws should be interpreted in a contact sport which increasingly has boot to ball, rather than ball to hand.

The question about the development of the game aside, an incident like this offers the opportunity to engage and educate players about the laws.

  • What could Finn Russell have done?
  • Could players around him have made him aware of the situation earlier?
  • What is the best way to contest a high ball – in the air or on the ground?

Talking through the different aspects of the scenario can help young players read the situation better and help them with their decision making in those pressurised moments. Understanding the theory is half the answer but you need to balance this with the practical so the message is delivered.

Practising catching a high ball is part of every team’s training session plan. Traditionally the jumper is put under pressure with team mates shouting and using pads to ‘bump’ and disrupt the player’s approach which helps develop the catcher’s technique. As coaches do we focus enough on those who arrive late and have to contest the ball so they understand their options and work on their timing?

Looking at incidents like this can help flag those areas you might want to work on more so you make sure your players see the ball and the opponent, and don’t end up seeing red.

(Gavin Hickie is Head Coach at Dartmouth. His web site  is lineoutcoach.com.)