Rugby: Debate on tackle-height law highlights concussion dark cloud

Rugby: Debate on tackle-height law highlights concussion dark cloud
Kyle Steyn of Glasgow Warriors is tackled by Piers Francis of Bath Rugby during the Pool A Challenge Cup match between Glasgow Warriors and Bath Rugby at Scotstoun Stadium on 20 January 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo: Ian MacNicol / Getty Images)

Below the sternum, or below the waist? Views on the safest tackle height vary. What is certain is that changes to the law are coming.

New rugby laws are routinely trialled in community competitions before being implemented at higher levels. Knowing that a waist-high tackle trial is under way in France, and that it will be implemented in the English community game from 1 July, it’s fair to ask whether Test giants such as the Springboks and All Blacks will be operating under these tackle restrictions in the next three to five years.

It is also worth asking whether the change will exacerbate rather than alleviate the concussion crisis, and whether it will fundamentally alter the sport.

Unions under fire

Rugby bosses are under increasing pressure to find a solution. Earlier this month, 55 former amateur players – a group that looks set to grow in the coming months – initiated legal proceedings against England’s Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby, which they accuse of negligence in their failure to protect them from brain injuries during their careers.

A separate case involving 275 former professionals suffering from various neurological conditions – which they attribute to concussion-related incidents – is ongoing.

Over the past six years, steps have been taken to discourage and prevent head-on-head contact, and ultimately concussions. Stricter sanctions on high or reckless tackles have resulted in an increase in penalties and cards. Tackle technique has not been significantly altered, though, and the incidence of head-on-head contact remains high.

On 16 January, the English RFU announced that it will trial a new set of tackle laws at schools, universities and in the amateur club leagues from the start of next season (1 July). The RFU has set the tackle height at the waist in an attempt to decrease incidents of head collisions and concussions.

The RFU has followed the lead of several countries including France, which introduced similar changes in its domestic game in 2019. According to a report, the lowering of the tackle height has led to a 63% reduction in head-on-head contacts, and a 27% reduction in clear concussions as identified by the match referees.

But there has been a fierce backlash from the rugby community since the RFU made its announcement two weeks ago.

Amateur players have denounced the autocratic decision-making process and have pointed out that the changes may pose new threats to player safety. As of 26 January, an online petition protesting the waist-high tackle law trial had garnered 75,000 signatures.

Similar changes may be implemented at professional level in the not too distant future. There are reports in England that World Rugby is considering a global trial.

Those speaking out against the changes include Ireland coach Andy Farrell, British and Irish Lions flyhalf Johnny Sexton, former All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams and ex-Namibia loose forward Jacques Burger. Nigel Owens, the leading official of his generation, has asked if a game under this new law set “would be ‘referee-able’”.

Perhaps the trial in the community game in England will yield some definitive answers. Of course, it may be that New Zealand Rugby – which set the tackle height at the sternum in its community game at the start of this year – provides a less extreme and more practical answer.

Falcons player Ben Stevenson is tackled high by Alex Wootton of Connacht during the Pool A Challenge Cup match between Newcastle Falcons and Connacht Rugby at Kingston Park on 21 January 2023 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo: Stu Forster / Getty Images)

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Solution is non-negotiable

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker works as a research consultant to World Rugby. It’s debatable whether the tackle height should be set at the waist or the sternum, but the push for an answer to rugby’s concussion problem is non-negotiable.

“It’s human nature to resist change, but I would urge people to consider why the change is being made, and what the change actually entails,” Tucker told Daily Maverick.

“The law is set to be studied, so we will find out what kind of difference it makes, to the rate of concussion and to the game itself.”

Tucker recalls the decision to lower the tackle height to the waist in the sixth division of French rugby back in 2019. The change was made after the tackle-related deaths of four French players.

“Obviously some concerns were raised at the time about the tackle height dropping to the waist, and the potential consequences of the change. I raised a few myself. It’s not only about where the initial contact is made, but the position of the head at the moment of contact.”

Sports scientists assessing the potential for head contact and injury have split the body of the ball carrier into three zones that can be colour-coded based on the evidence from their studies. If the defender initiates contact at or above the sternum, it puts the head in the red zone, and the risk of head injury caused by head impacts with heads and shoulders is highest.

What zone to target?

If the tackle is below the waist – in the amber zone – the risk of head injury is lower than when high, although there is still a risk of injury and concussion caused by hip, leg and knee impact. If the defender tackles between the ball-carrier’s sternum and hip, which would include the waist – in the green zone – the head is in the safest position and injury risk is lowest.

New Zealand goes in higher

“Now, with regards to France making that decision to lower the tackle height, they felt that the sternum didn’t signify a big enough change, that it wouldn’t get the tackler low enough,” explained Tucker. “So they dropped it to the waist.”

Late last year, New Zealand took the decision to lower the tackle height to the sternum ahead of the community season. Other unions may announce plans to drop the tackle height in their own community leagues in the near future – and it will be interesting to see whether they follow France and the RFU’s lead, or New Zealand’s.

“At the moment, it’s up to the respective unions regarding how they want to manage their community game,” said Tucker. “World Rugby doesn’t have a community rugby policy. It can only advise the unions, based on the science.

“But when trials are held, such as the trials in France and New Zealand, they can inform that advice. There needs to be a thorough research process, and World Rugby would encourage any trial to run for at least two years.

“Prior to the pandemic, a trial was staged in Stellenbosch for six months, and there were some promising results, but they only appeared in the last few months of the trial. Unfortunately, that had to be stopped because of Covid. It will be interesting to see what comes from the trial in New Zealand, and indeed what more comes from the trial in France.”

Up in arms

Although many are up in arms about what the changes could mean for the professional game in the long term, Tucker is adamant that all findings from the respective trials will be analysed carefully before a decision is taken to implement new laws at the elite level – or not.

“Ultimately you have to decide whether a change is worth it. If the data shows that there is only a 10% reduction in concussion rate, but the game has drastically changed, then perhaps that law shouldn’t be implemented permanently. It’s about finding the right balance.

“To reiterate, we cannot ignore the issue of concussion in the game, and we have to find a way to address it. Getting the right answer takes time.

“It’s also important to get all the relevant stakeholders on board before embarking on that journey, but, once there is a buy-in, you need to follow the process to its conclusion.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Confucious Says says:

    I recall a law that says something to the effect of: if you partake in a dangerous sport, you forego any claim to injury as a resale of partaking in that sport (±).

    This class action would open the door for any person with any injury in any sport to claim from the governing body. Players all have some kind of injury. They also all play with the knowledge that injury is inevitable.
    The new proposed tackle laws will fundamentally change the game, so they should name it something else and start a new league. It is a game of contact and it is impossible to control the physics in an impact.
    Severe injuries are still the statistical outliers in this sport. Keep rugby as it is and if you don’t like it, don’t play the game. There’s no point in knowingly participating, knowing that you’re going to sue some years later. That’s not rugby!

    • andrew farrer says:

      Quite right. These tackle laws (with yellow and red cards) are killing the game! Why are tacklers being punished when the ball carrier drops his height going into a tackle or goes in head first (as many front row forwards do)? And, from games I watch on TV, most of the guys carried off injured after a tackle are the tacklers, not the ball carrier!

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