NOTever accuses rugby union’s authorities of doing things by half. After the red cards will come the deluge of penalties. From next season, the community game in England will see tacklers penalized for any contact above the waist of a ball-carrier.
The move – which will apply to National One and below in the men’s game and Championship One and below in the women’s game – has already precipitated howls of protest from across the sport. The reactions of coaches and players past and present, some suffering the neurodegenerative legacy of their years in the game, have run the gamut from the uneasy to the splutteringly apoplectic. It is difficult to see how such a draconian shift in the dynamics of the sport could possibly work without referees developing the sort of myopia normally reserved for crooked feeds at the scrum.
The authorities must have seen enough by now to realize that where a tackler makes contact with a ball-carrier is no more than 50% within the tackler’s control. The clue is in the definition. Wherever the line of legality is drawn, be it shoulder or waist, it is always on the ball-carrier. And the ball-carrier is not only always moving but actively trying to make life difficult for the tackler.
The aim is to continue the long campaign to get players to tackle lower, as if this will prove a cure to all the game’s undoubted problems – which, it has almost become a cliché to point out, are genuinely existential in their severity. This latest law change falls in with the red-card protocols, which have proved an abject failure by every measure.
There were just the six red cards last weekend across the 21 matches in Europe. By cosmic coincidence, the previous week marked the sixth anniversary of the protocols, officially introduced on 3 January 2017, although unofficially before that. There were also six red cards in one weekend throughout Europe in December 2016.
At some point the penny will surely drop that this relentless demonization of the tackler will never result in anything more progressive than to make rugby an impossible sport to play. We are still sending players off six years on not because they are delinquent lunatics who must be punished but because some situations are impossible to avoid reliably in such a fast-moving sport. We can expect to discover the same, and then some, with this new tackle height.
The only study available for scrutiny that the RFU acknowledged the influence of in arriving at the new legislation is World Rugby’s 2016 paper anatomizing 611 incidents that led to Head Injury Assessments in the elite game. From this study many dramatic stats have been pulled to illustrate the fact that high tackles equal bad, low tackles equal good.
These all miss the point that the only party who is being forced to modify behavior is the tackler. The key stat is that an upright tackler is 44% more likely to lead to an HIA than a bent-at-the-waist tackler, which correspondingly is 30% less likely. Out of those 611 HIAs, 164 were the result of an upright tackler. If every single one of them had bent at the waist, the risk would have been reduced by 30%, or 49 HIAs out of 611.
So the absolute maximum reduction in head injuries we could expect, in the impossible – and, as admitted by World Rugby, undesirable – scenario that we never see another upright tackler again is, theoretically, 8%. In reality, upright tacklers remain common. World Rugby acknowledge that what they call the “soak” tackle is much the safer when a ball-carrier is traveling headlong at a tackler at high speed. This latest law, though, would seem to take that option away.
In the six years since the red-card protocols came in, concussion rates have not shifted one iota. The latest set of statistics from the Premiership’s annual audit of injuries showed them higher than ever. This longed-for lowering of the height of the tackle is not going to reduce concussion rates significantly or eliminate direct contact to the head.
One of the most endearing points of the RFU’s press release was to note that ball-carriers will be “encouraged” to evade tacklers without effecting any late or sudden changes in body height. Good luck with that. As a counter, Nick Easter, Chinnor’s director of rugby, suggested he will be coaching his ball-carriers to do precisely the opposite, thus milking penalty after penalty. Ball-carriers have always set the terms of the tackle, which is why focusing all the attention on the tackler is not only unjust but utterly futile.
And so is focusing on concussion. Even if we could significantly reduce one-off head injuries, the threat to the sport comes from the elevated risk of neurodegenerative conditions in later life, which is not the result of concussions but of multiple impacts, to body as well as head, over many years. The danger here is in the increased pace and power of the modern game at all levels, which in turn is the result of fitter, faster and more powerful players. Red cards will do nothing to address that, neither will lower tackle heights.
Usually, when one engages with rugby’s authorities on these matters, you eventually encounter the retort, “well, you come up with a better idea”. That is undeniably difficult. One idea, though, might be not to cripple the credibility of the sport further with ever-more absurd protocols that have no hope of delivering an upside.
Collision sports cannot be played without repeated rattling of the brain. Watching rugby encounter that reality is becoming the most painful collision of all.