Tackling is the act of bringing a player down to the ground when he is carrying the ball and is an important but potentially dangerous element of playing Rugby Union. Though the technique is often acquired easily with a bit of practice, there are a number of rules for what can and cannot happen in a tackle, mostly due to safety concerns, and so the most important part is to know these rules well in order to avoid penalties.
The main rules for tackling are as follows. First of all, when you tackle you must make sure that there is no contact above the shoulders as this is dangerous: you will definitely get a penalty or even a serious dismissal for a high tackle. Also, it is necessary in Rugby Union for the player in possession of the ball to give it up as soon as he reaches the ground, usually by passing it to a team-mate or putting it on the ground. Both the player who is tackled and the one who is tackling must roll away immediately after the tackle.
It is possible for a team-mate of the player who is tackled to pick up the ball immediately after the tackle but they are only allowed to do this if they are still standing on their feet. If the team-mate ends up touching the original player, however, and the ball is still on the ground, the tackle becomes what is known as a ruck, after which none of the team-mates is allowed to handle the ball. They can, however, attempt to win the ball back from the opposing team. If a maul forms, i.e. three or more players are in contact and trying to get the ball whilst all are still standing, a tackle is not allowed for safety reasons.
For those who want a visual explanation of the rules, a good video made by the experts Jeremy Guscott and Brian Moore, who are former England internationals, can be found here.
Strategy for tackling
With all good tackles, the key things to remember are good timing, concentration and hand-eye coordination. Timing is particularly important as you will mostly be tackling players who are running at speed. An informative video showing a pair of experts teaching school children how best to tackle can be seen here.
There are a number of different types of tackle you can master in order to become proficient. One of the most commonly used and effective tackles is the side tackle as it means you can approach the player from either side.
The procedure is firstly, whilst making sure that you keep your shoulders above the ball-carrier's hips, to focus on the thigh of the player and crouch down, bracing your shoulder for the impact. Then you perform the tackle by diving with your legs and making contact between the ball-carrier's thigh and your shoulder.
At this point it is important to keep your head behind the opponent and grasp his legs tightly whilst carrying on diving with the initial momentum in order to bring him down. Finally, when the opponent reaches the ground and releases the ball, you must get back on your feet again before you try to grab it. If you fail to do this, you'll get a penalty.
The side tackle will not always work as sometimes you will need to tackle a player from behind, this often being a crucial tackle if the opponent is about to score a try. Like with the side-tackle, the most important thing to do is focus, this time on both the target's thighs. Timing is most important for this type of tackle as if you leave it too long, you may end up diving for the opponent's boot which can be painful. Try therefore to get as close to the player as possible.
Dive and make contact as before, making sure to position your head to one side of their leg. When you make contact, take a firm hold around their legs and try not to let go as the momentum invariably brings you down too, hopefully with you on top to avoid injury. As before, it is tempting to lie there and rest but it is important to get back on your feet again and carry on playing.
With the above tackles, speed is key and you will only be able to tackle if the opponent is close enough for you to make easy contact. However, there are ways in which you can tackle if they are further ahead. For example, if your opponent is getting away from you, you can use what is known as a tap tackle.
This is a difficult move for more ambitious players and it works as follows. You must dive forward as much as possible in order to make slight contact with the player's ankles, the idea being that if you hit one of his ankles, it can bang into his other leg and cause him to topple over. It is vital that you remember, however, that deliberately tripping a player over with your foot is strictly prohibited.
Strategy for avoiding tackles
The main thing all players with possession of the ball must watch out for are tacklers who will try and send you to the ground. There are a number of techniques you can use to try and avoid tackles and some of these are outlined below.
A common technique is to use what is known as the "side-step" dodge, which basically means you trick your opponent into thinking that you are going one way when you are in fact going to go in another direction. Everything about your behaviour at this point should indicate your initial direction, for example by making a wide and visible step with your outside leg. As soon as the opponent attempts to tackle you, you should quickly change direction and thus avoid being caught.
Another good way of trying to trick your opponent is to use what is known as "the dummy" which means you try and convince him that you are about to pass the ball, when in actual fact, you are going to keep on running past him, fast enough to cause confusion over where the ball has gone. In order to perform this effectively, you need a team-member who is nearby, and you must make eye-contact with him and give the impression that you are about to pass. At this point you should pretend you are passing but then immediately shift your weight and carry on speeding past your opponent.
What is most important when practising tackling is to keep your mind on the rules, especially those which are designed for your safety. After a while these will become second nature to you and you can concentrate on the more subtle elements of tackling.