George Smith, the legendary Wallabies back-row, was in his suit and tie, talking about tackling to three former, experienced rugby players at a central Bristol hotel Tuesday evening. Tackling is a part of life that has become as familiar to him as putting clothes on, going to the supermarket or, probably, breathing. The three facing him also know a thing or two about tackling as they sat as the panel for his hearing following the red card he was issued for his collision with Jackson Wray last Saturday in Bristol Bears' match against Saracens.
In World Rugby's laws, the definition of a tackle runs just 19 words long. Simple, right? Well, no, and an audience with Smith, 38, proves as much.
"If you're breaking it down, a tackle is not just a tackle," he tells ESPN, and what follows is a lengthy three-minute dissection of every type possible and any scenario he might find himself in.
This is what happens when you have a 19-year professional career, featuring 111 caps for the Wallabies and an indisputable reputation as one of the modern era's premier opensides, fetchers or back-rowers in general. When it comes to tackling, he's what Bill Gates is to computers, Claude Monet to the paintbrush or Lloyd Grossman to pasta sauces. He knows what he's talking about, which was why he was confident the panel would agree that he never made contact with Wray's head when the two collided.
"You've got to be anticipating and thinking about what you're going to do before the tackle, and then anticipating what you're going to do after the tackle so it's not the application of doing the tackle, it's figuring out what's happening before the tackle is attempted, what sort of tackle is needed -- whether it's a low tackle or a ball-and-all tackle or using the momentum of the opposition to bring them down and stick with him. There are various tackles for various situations.
"Then after the tackle you're thinking about 'how's my body position going to be when the tackle is completed? Am I going to be in a position to go for the ball, or reload back into the defensive line, or counter ruck.
"You're thinking about all these different scenarios and different things within two, three or four seconds. You're thinking about these scenarios and that was what my process was at that time."
The information and insight is exhausting, but equally fascinating. And this is what the judiciary panel heard -- or a similar version - on Tuesday evening as they met to work out whether he should face a suspension for the red card he was handed by referee Andrew Jackson for the 'dangerous tackle' on Saracens' flanker Jackson Wray. It was the only red card he had to his name, a single blot on an otherwise spotless disciplinary record covering his time in Australia, Japan and in the Premiership with Wasps and now Bristol. But the three wise men cleared Smith of any wrongdoing, with panel chair Gareth Graham saying in the post-hearing statement: "The player explained his actions in detail and assisted the panel by demonstrating how the tackle had been carried out."
Unfortunately, if you are picturing Smith, complete with suit and tie, throwing his file for the defence to one side and then positioning various inanimate objects in the room to illustrate his tackle theory, or using the panel as props, then it is a slight flight of fancy.
"...ya," Smith says after a lengthy pause having been when asked whether this scenario was slightly different to what actually happened. "We put our case forward... we were very respectful of the process. I'm very lucky, I've had a lot of experience of playing the game and had experience of putting myself in the correct situations so in that instance I knew there was no foul play."
When Smith clattered into Wray in the 48th minute, Bristol were level at 18 apiece with champions Saracens having led at the break. Saracens were on the attack. Smith saw Alex Goode quick-tap a penalty, throw the ball to Wray and Smith knew if he was given the chance to offload, then Saracens had a good chance of scoring. "My process was I had to make a ball-and-all tackle, move up quickly on him so he didn't have time to react or manoeuvre out of the type of tackle I was going to make," Smith explains. "Once the tackle was made, I went into my second job which was to attempt the jackal, which I did and retrieved the ball back for us as a turnover.
"You're thinking about things in three opportunities within one effort so it's not just about the tackle, it's about what you're seeing before the tackle happens, picking what sort of tackle is appropriate for that situation and then following it up with a couple of actions so you're still in the game or giving an advantage for your own team."
After the collision came the pause as referee Jackson consulted the Television Match Official for a minute or so -- all the while Smith was seen smiling, quietly confident the TMO would see it as a legal tackle. And then came the red card, Jackson deeming Smith to have made contact with Wray's head. A slightly bemused look followed and the hearing.
To prove Smith's innocence, Bristol coach Pat Lam and team manager Gareth Delve put together a dossier of evidence. The on-field view seen by the referee failed to show the position of the ball, only Wray's head flying back. The dossier highlighted where the ball was, how Smith had hit that, and how his arms were placed correctly. "The ball he was carrying was in his left hand and I've made contact with it but it was hard to see from that still where the contact was, but you could see it from the side-angle," Smith continues. "I didn't teach them anything, these were experienced panelists, I didn't teach them anything, I just showed them my actions and thought process. There were experienced people there who knew it all, but thankfully came out with a fair verdict.
"I explained my thought process when I made the tackle and it's not just me reacting to things, it's me having a measured approach to what type of tackle I'm making in a specific situation. In that case, it was a ball-and-all tackle that needed to be made or the alternative outcome would've been a try for them. It was me assessing the situation and making a tackle that was specific to the situation that happened."
It was Smith's second disciplinary hearing, the first during his spell with Wasps for a knee charge which was also thrown out by the panel just like it was on Wednesday. So a free man, Smith will face Gloucester on Friday evening under the lights at Kingsholm. Placed in the same situation as he was last weekend, he'd do exactly the same thing, weighing up the pros and cons of every outcome and then implementing his plan accordingly. But there is one other aspect he considers when preparing for a tackle. His own well-being.
"It does hurt... but I've played in different competitions in different domestic leagues but this one, in terms of size, we have some big, big players in this league as you have to be on your game in terms of technique. If you're off by a few centimetres, you can really get hurt, you have big bodies coming at you."