RFU’s Bill Sweeney facing calls to resign over tackle height rule-change debacle

<span>Photograph: Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

The Rugby Football Union chief executive, Bill Sweeney, is facing calls to resign over the botched handling of the decision to lower the tackle height at community level with the governing body issuing a grovelling apology on Friday for the distress it has caused.

Following a heated emergency council meeting on Thursday, the RFU has acknowledged the “anger and concern” it has prompted but remains committed to lowering the tackle height and will consult its clubs as to the precise definition of how to do so.

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A significant contributing factor to the debacle has been the terminology of the law change. The RFU used the word “waist” when announcing the decision but most of the evidence behind the change makes reference to the “navel”. The RFU has accepted that the differing interpretations have only muddied the waters but is still likely to face significant opposition from those who do not want the tackle height lowered at all.

A compromise may ultimately be reached where the tackle height is lowered to the sternum but if the RFU is apologising for its choice of words only, it will do little to quell the rebellion at grassroots level.

Last Thursday the RFU announced the decision to lower the tackle height to the waist after a unanimous vote by its council last Monday. That led to uproar among grassroots clubs who were furious they were not consulted, at the lack of evidence provided and the manner in which the decision was communicated. It also led to the formation of the Community Clubs Union which has been encouraging clubs to urge their council members to rescind their votes, or if they refuse, to remove them.

The CCU has also been canvassing clubs’ support for a special general meeting and a vote of no confidence in Sweeney and the RFU board. Despite Friday’s apology, Sweeney remains under huge pressure after a disastrous week for the governing body. “Bill Sweeney has shown he is no friend of the community game and has seriously undervalued the strength of the community game,” said the CCU. “We will push for his resignation or removal via the SGM.”

Some council members were themselves furious that the issue was not put up for consultation before the vote last Monday, felt they were railroaded into agreeing and that they were bearing the brunt of the rebellion. Following the consultation announced by the RFU, the issue is set to be formally debated at next month’s council meeting – as a number of members had initially called for.

“The RFU board, council and executive staff apologise for the anger and concern that has been created among the rugby community by announcing the decision to lower the tackle height from next season,” read the RFU’s statement.

“In our desire to act quickly to reduce head impacts and concussions in the community game, which represents 99% of the rugby-playing population in England, we have upset many of you who are the champions, volunteers, and ambassadors of our game. We fully acknowledge we got the engagement wrong, and we are truly sorry.

“In making our decision we were aware that France have lowered the tackle height, New Zealand will be doing so and World Rugby supports this approach. We, like the French, used the term ‘waist and below’; this has caused misunderstanding and confusion. We would now like the game to help us define how we describe a lower tackle height to reflect what the research is telling us in a way that is understood by all.

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“Consequently, the risk of head injuries should be reduced if tackling below that optimum height. We will now begin a series of forums and workshops with players, coaches, match officials and volunteers, to explain and develop the details of the domestic law variation.”

The apology comes after World Rugby’s chief executive Alan Gilpin revealed plans to lower the tackle height across the global game, including at elite level in the coming years. World Rugby on Friday sought to distance itself from the suggestion that the tackle height at elite level would be lowered imminently, instead pointing to its planned global trial at amateur level next year. The direction of travel is clear, however, with trials planned by other home nations as well as in New Zealand next year.

The trial taking place in New Zealand will limit tackle height at the sternum and the RFU’s apology suggests that eventually, the amateur game in England will follow suit. For many in the community game, however, the damage has already been done by the RFU and Sweeney now finds himself with a target on his back.

The radical change at amateur level in England was announced on the same day it emerged more than 55 amateur players joined the class-action lawsuit against rugby’s governing bodies — World Rugby, the RFU and Welsh Rugby Union — in alleging they were not protected from permanent brain injuries. The action is separate to the case involving a group of 225 former professional union players, which was already under way.

“A large body of scientific evidence demonstrates the risk of head injury and concussion for players can be reduced by lowering the tackle height to prevent head on head contact,” the RFU’s statement continued. “However, we also accept that the rugby community has other concerns that this change may bring and we need to listen, understand and respond to those concerns. We will start inviting players, coaches, match officials and volunteers to these forums from early next week, so that we can all work together.”