Rugby players in uproar over changes to legal tackle height
The Rugby Football Union was on Friday night facing its biggest player revolt since the dawn of professionalism as current England internationals joined amateur players and coaches in voicing their disdain at plans to alter the legal tackle height to the waist.
Ben Stokes, the England cricket Test captain, is among the critics and an online petition calling for the RFU to reconsider proposals has gathered more than 30,000 signatures.
Lewis Ludlow, the Gloucester captain, highlighted the risk of the game suffering a spike in concussions due to players’ heads being more regularly aimed towards the knees of opponents, while former New Zealand international Sonny Bill Williams insisted that “contact is part of the game”. The pair were two of dozens of messages posted online directly in response to the RFU’s announcement, which came on Thursday afternoon.
Stokes, a rugby union fan who visited Premiership side Newcastle Falcons just this week, suggested that the seismic change could bring about an increase in head injuries.
“Let’s lower the tackle height but bring in a higher chance of the attackers’ knees hitting defenders in the head,” he posted on Twitter in response to a reaction from Joe Marler, the Harlequins and England prop. “And also let’s take out any consideration for instinctive athleticism in the heat of sport.”
Later, Stokes cited the experience of his late father, Ged, whose rugby league career finished due to a broken neck. “My Dad’s professional career got ended earlier due to a broken neck from a knee to the head whilst tackling,” posted the 31-year-old. “Would you rather concussion or broken neck?”
There remain a number of unknown factors causing concern. It is unclear, for instance, if players who are sent on loan from the Premiership to National One, the third tier of the English club pyramid, could be thrust from regular laws into what will seem like an entirely different sport.
It is also not yet known if fixtures played in British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) competitions will adopt the waist-high tackle height.
'Muscle memory takes over'
Peter Winterbottom, the former England and British and Irish Lions flanker, is now director of rugby at Esher. He explained that the situation is likely to be “problematic” for the third tier and that communication from law-makers had been minimal.
“It’s going to be quite problematic for us, first of all learning what we can and cannot do,” Winterbottom said. “A lot of what people do on a rugby pitch is muscle memory. You’ve tackled all your life – not necessarily high but below the chest and around the abdomen – and now that is going to change.
“Things happen on the rugby pitch pretty fast and muscle memory takes over. I think perhaps doing it at levels seven and eight is not as important because things aren’t as fast. But we will have Premiership academy guys dropping down into National One, where they will be playing a different game. I thought that it might be brought in within schools, but not as high as National One.”
“I understand that there is evidence to show that head-on-head collisions bring about concussions but this will not stop concussions from happening. It will remain a dangerous game,” added Winterbottom. “There has been no consultation whatsoever.
“You would have thought that wouldn’t have been the case with something of this magnitude, which has got to be the biggest law change in the history of the game. This is after they have adapted the laws constantly over the years to get to where we are now with a rugby league-style game as big men tackle big men.”
For Winterbottom, additional confusion comes from the fact that safety provision for players has improved over the past three decades.
“Concussion protocol has moved on massively,” said the 62-year-old. “We’ve got three guys going through concussion protocol at the moment. Thirty years ago, they would have been playing on. It’s very well managed, and that is only getting better.”
'Concussions are about to go through the roof'
A petition on change.org, which moved beyond 30,000 online signatures shortly after 5pm on Friday, was started by Ed Bartlett and predicted that the move, which is due to come into force on July 1, would make the game into a “farcical spectacle”.
It also aired concerns over multiple penalties and cards, players needing to re-train ingrained habits and various issues stemming from a decrease in participation. While data has reinforced the risk of upright tackles, one continued worry has been the risk of more concussions because of tacklers staying low and suffering head-on-knee and head-on-hip contact.
The RFU has cited the success of a trial in France, which recorded a 63 per cent decrease in head-on-head collisions, but appear to be implementing an initiative with at least two major differences. Firstly, the RFU trial will affect the third tier down in the men’s game, as opposed to tier six and below in France. Secondly, the French trial outlawed two tacklers. The RFU considered this, but will continue to allow two tacklers in a smaller space on the carrier’s body.
Ludlow appeared to hint at this risk on Twitter. “Well concussions [are] about to go through the roof in the community game!” he posted on Thursday evening.
Former World Cup-winning All Black Williams was similarly unequivocal.
Rugby is not an “evasion sport”.
Rugby is about creating space through manipulating and moving defenses, contact is part of the game.
We must be careful thinking one rule will work for all. I know I’m not one to talk, but trust me this wont fix rugby’s concussion problems. https://t.co/ILMUGkDAhW
— Sonny Bill Williams (@SonnyBWilliams) January 20, 2023
Ryan Lamb, the former Gloucester and England fly-half, added: “I get we are trying to protect players and safety is top priority, but this is not the way forward. Knees to head galore, heads colliding. Plus, anyone on this panel tried carrying the ball dead upright?”
Activist group Progressive Rugby, who are in favour of lowering the legal tackle height to the line of the armpit, urged the RFU to shed more light on the studies that have motivated this change.
“We are naturally supportive of decisions made in the interests of player welfare,” read a statement from Progressive Rugby. “However, as yet the group have been unable to satisfactorily scrutinise the data on which this decision has been based. While initial thoughts are cautiously positive, members do have matters requiring clarification that we will endeavour to discuss with the RFU.”