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How crackdown on high shots may be helping Manly and Cronulla

Players and coaches agree that tacklers are aiming lower after the NRL's mid-season crackdown on high shots, and Manly and Cronulla may be the biggest beneficiaries.

The Sea Eagles and Sharks make significantly more two-man tackles – and less three-man tackles – than their rivals, and both have climbed the Telstra Premiership ladder since the edict about high contact on the eve of Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium.

Manly were ninth heading into the weekend of round 10 action in Brisbane, while Cronulla were 13th. The Sea Eagles and Sharks go into Sunday's round 20 clash at Redcliffe in sixth and seventh position respectively.

NRL head of football elite competitions Graham Annesley believes that there have been adjustments to tackling styles to avoid stars spending time in the sin bin or serving a suspension, and he is supported by anecdotal evidence from players and coaches, as well as statistics.

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"I don't think there's been any modifications to tackle technique as far as practice goes, however, there is definitely a heightened awareness around executing with control," Dragons assistant coach Matthew Elliott said.

"As is the case with any change, execution can be impacted. Personally I feel that teams with the best individual technique – rather those who focus on combo tackles – have adapted well."

Other coaches agreed. 

"I'm not sure what other clubs are doing around this but I'm sure that everyone discussed it and adjusted their techniques. I know we certainly did," said one coach, who asked not to be named.

Another said: "I think the speed of the ruck has caused some of the target zones to be lowered and I reckon everyone would have done some coaching since Magic Weekend to try and get it down".

According to data provided by the NRL, the number of high shots have been falling dramatically since round 11, which resulted in 56 tackles being scrutinised by the match review committee and 14 charges laid.

A week earlier, at Magic Round, there were 14 players sin-binned, three sent off and 22 charged with 24 offences, including 10 high tackles.

In comparison, there have been four players charged for high shots in each of the past two rounds, including Brisbane prop Thomas Flegler, who is facing a two-match ban for a grade three careless high tackle on Penrith captain Isaiah Yeo.

"The one thing that is absolutely clear since the ARL Commission made their decision about taking stronger action is that we have seen a significant drop in contact with the head and neck," Annesley said.

"We have seen the match review committee reviewing far fewer incidents of contact with the head and neck, we have seen fewer players sent to the sin bin because of contact with the head and neck, and we have seen fewer penalties.

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"In some rounds it is a little higher than others but generally speaking the trend is down, which means that the game is safer for players to play and we are seeing less of those incidents.

"We all know that with the speed the game is played we will see incidents from time to time, but players have adjusted their tackling style, I am absolutely in no doubt about that."

For Manly, Sharks it takes two to tango

Manly's rise from the bottom of the table to be within reach of a top four berth has coincided with the return of Tom Trbojevic from a hamstring injury in round six and they have won eight of the 10 matches the superstar fullback has played.

However, Des Hasler's men also boast a record since Magic Round that is bettered only by Melbourne, winning seven of their eight matches – as have South Sydney.

While most teams continue aiming to have three players in a tackle to help control the ruck, the Sea Eagles focus more on two-man tackles to enable them to keep their defensive line intact.

Of all tackles made by Manly this season, 56.5 per cent are two-man tackles and only 25.5 per cent involve three defenders or more.

In two-man tackles, which have increased due to quicker ruck speed, defenders usually aim lower whereas in a three-man tackle players try to hit on or over the ball to prevent an offload and enable defences to set before he plays the ball.  

Cronulla are the only other team with two defenders involved in more than 50 per cent of their tackles, and less than 30 per cent requiring three or more defenders.

The Sharks have also enjoyed success since Magic Round, winning six of their past eight games – a better record than the fourth-placed Parramatta and fifth-placed Sydney Roosters as well as the nine teams below them.

In a rare occurrence, round 20 features match-ups between the top eight teams, with the Roosters playing the Eels, the eight-placed Dragons taking on the third-placed Rabbitohs, the top-of-the-table Storm-Panthers clash and the Sharks facing the Sea Eagles.

The bottom eight teams also play each other on a weekend that may have a significant bearing on the make-up of the final eight.

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Fear of doing time drives change

South Sydney props Tom Burgess and Mark Nicholls said the risk of being penalised, sin-binned or sent off for any high contact was encouraging players to aim lower in tackles.

"We haven't purposely done but I guess that it is probably players individually realising the consequences," Nicholls said.

"With high shots and the automatic 10 minutes [in the sin bin] that was happening, you don't want to let down your team-mates, so I guess individually players are responding more so than any coaching we are receiving."

Burgess said: "There could be an extra effort just to dip a little bit more and lower your target area. I have not thought about it too much in my game but there could be a bit of a mindset going into games now, which has trickled down into less high shots".

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Penrith second-rower Kurt Capewell also said that the number of high shots had reduced in matches.

"I guess there had to be [a change in technique]. You're definitely seeing less penalties from it now, so I guess that indicates that players are taking more care."

St George Illawarra second-rower Tyrell Fuimaono, who was sent off in Magic Round for a high shot on Storm fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen, said it was difficult to change tackling techniques.

"I definitely don't think we've changed our tackling technique in regards to tackling around the legs or something like that because it's not viable in the way that people play and the way that the game's going," Fuimaono said.

"It's already fast as it is and if you were to include legs tackling as such then no teams would be able to keep up. It's just not compatible, so I don't think we've had much of a change."

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.

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