All rugby players need to be able to tackle, but the back row probably put in more tackles per game than most other players. So it seems reasonable to talk about the visual requirements in tackling for back row players. These would also be largely the same for other players, though the backs might be more likely to find themselves isolated in a one-on-one situation.
Some of the most common mistakes made in tackling include: planting the feet; not getting close enough; not driving in with the shoulder; tackling too high; and getting the head in the wrong position.
The tackler will take responsibility for guarding a channel, so will be looking out for potential ball carriers running into that channel. Once that ball carrier has been identified, the tackler should immediately switch their focus to the ball carrier’s core area (around the stomach), because where the core goes, the player goes. The tackler might also start visualising the tackle.
“Visualise” in this sense means much more than imagining what something will look like: it’s more about imagining the feel of the shoulder making contact with the target area. An early switch of focus to the core means that the tackler will be able to react to a change in direction from the ball carrier, but the initial visualisation might for instance involve the right shoulder driving into the right thigh of the ball carrier level with the bottom of the shorts. This clear preparation should ensure that the head is safely to the side of the ball carrier, “cheek to cheek”. If the tackler drops their head, or gets it on the wrong side, serious injury could result.
We are all naturally drawn to look at other people’s faces, and this is why tackles are often attempted too high. So in training, it’s important that players make sure that they make this early switch in focus and visualisation each time, whilst ensuring that they do not drop their head.
At non-elite levels, you often see players planting their feet quite wide apart, sometimes stretching their arms out to the side, supposedly making themselves a more difficult target to avoid. But it’s very difficult to get any power into the tackle from that position, and it’s also very difficult to react to any late movement from the ball carrier. The tackler often ends up having to dive to make a tackle. This is likely to be ineffective if high, and runs the risk of their head getting in the way of a stray boot if the tackle is low. The tackler is also vulnerable to the hand off if the ball carrier runs straight at them because they are in such a weak position.
The tackler should aim to get their feet in close to the ball carrier, so it’s essential to keep their feet “active” with small steps. One tip is to imagine a hula hoop around the ball carrier, and if the tackler is aiming with their right shoulder, they should try and get their right foot within that hoop. Another tip when training is to get the tackler to keep their hands in to their chest, and to push against a ball carrier without extending their arms, which again ensures they’ve got in close.
As the ball carrier gets in range, the tackler dips the shoulder (dipping the shoulder too early can expose the head), but it’s still essential to keep the head up. So the eyes focus on the target before contact, and then past the ball carrier when contact is made. The feet must keep moving with small steps to drive through the tackle as the arms close around the ball carrier. If the tackle is made from the side, the ball carrier’s own momentum should cause them to fall over with the tackler on top.