‘Death of the game’: Rugby’s move to lower legal tackle height faces backlash

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The RFU’s controversial decision to lower the legal tackle height across English community rugby to below the waist from next season has met with backlash from within the sport – with the decision declared as “farcical” and “the death of the game” in some quarters.

The radical move has been unanimously approved by Rugby Football Union Council members in an attempt to support player welfare, notably reducing head impact exposure to mitigate concussions and brain injuries.

It will apply across the community game – clubs, schools, colleges and universities at both age-grade and adult levels – from the third tier downwards, covering the National One division and below in the men’s game and Championship One and below in the women’s game.

“Designed to improve player safety and informed by data, this change aims to reduce head impact exposure and concussion risk in the tackle for both the ball carrier and tackler,” the RFU said, in a statement explaining the decision. “Evidence from studies has consistently demonstrated that higher contact on the ball-carrier and closer proximity of the ball-carrier and tacklers’ heads are associated with larger head impacts and an increased risk of concussion.

“Lowering the height of the tackle and encouraging the tackler to bend more at the waist will minimise the risk of this occurring, while maintaining the tackle as an integral part of the game. Tackles must be made at the line of the waist and below.”

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It’s fair to say that the reaction to this measure has been far from universally positive with a number of rugby personalities putting their head above the parapet – so to speak – to hit out at the RFU.

Former England and Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter, who now coaches National One side Chinnor – a team affected by the trial – has suggested it will signal the death of rugby union.

“Name those accountable for advising and voting on this,” he fumed in a tweet. “More concussion/injuries and lawsuits coming! #notthesolution #deathofthegame”

The Eggchasers podcast were similarly disparaging, describing the change as farcical, tweeting: “RFU moving tackle height to waist from next season from level 3 down: They’ve just created 2 different sports.

“For “player welfare”? Those affected are AMATEUR, not physical mutants as in pros, engaging voluntarily as they might horse riding, sky diving or skiing. Farcical.”

England Test cricket captain, Ben Stokes, also weighed in to criticise the move for removing instinctive athleticism from rugby.

He wrote: “Let’s lower the tackle height but bring in a higher chance of the attackers [sic] knees hitting defenders in the head. And also let’s take out any consideration for instinctive athleticism in the heat of sport.”

Current England international and Harlequins prop Joe Marler also expressed his frustration, responding to the RFU’s initial tweet laying out the change with an exploding head emoji.

Marler also later wrote, “Who the hell did they get to advise on this?” before agreeing with Stokes’ criticism, by tweeting, “What he said”.

Former Wales prop Lee Jarvis was more nuanced but expressed concerns over the unintended consequences of the law change.

He said: “100 per cent for player safety BUT if you lower the tackle to waist or below, then you are going to get even more injuries/concussions with knees to face/head. Players need to have a tackle choice to protect themselves as well?”

London Irish prop and Australia international Ollie Hoskins drew on his own experiences of a previous similar trial (where the tackle height was lowered to below the nipple) that had to be abandoned, to condemn the decision.

“I was part of the trial of similar laws during the Championship Cup season a few years ago… we literally had exponentially more concussions because of it,” he explained.

“Tackle choice is situational and forcing low tackles in all cases is even more dangerous I think the trial showed this” before ending his tweet with a facepalm emoji.

Jeremy Itoje – the brother of England and British & Irish Lions international Maro Itoje – who plays for Harrow RFC joined Easter in predicting the death of rugby, saying: “The game’s dead, RFU have just made the refs life a lot harder and increased the likelihood of head injury. [It’s] killing the sport through ruining grassroots.”

Rob Webber, a former England hooker now coaching at Jersey RFC, called it “bonkers”, while current London Irish fly-half Rory Jennings described the move as “self-sabotaging”, followed by a smiley emoji.

However, there were also plenty of voices supporting the attempt to mitigate the impact of head injuries and concussions in rugby.

Neil Back, who won 66 caps for England between 1996 and 2003, as well as playing for the Lions, suggested that tackling below the waist was a welcome return to the technique of the past.

He tweeted: “Hmmm, that’s where I targeted from 4yrs old when I made my first tackle playing for @EarlsdonRfc through to when I made my last playing for the @lionsofficial aged 36 years and 160 days old when we played New Zealand in Christchurch, on 25 June 2005.”

Meanwhile, in his column forThe Telegraph, former England hooker and current BBC commentator Brian Moore took aim at those spouting unresearched opinions on the topic.

“World Rugby and the RFU, and every other union for that matter, have to trial such law changes now they are possessed of this knowledge [the danger of concussions],” wrote Moore. “As a reminder, they have to do this according to the law (of the land, not rugby) and the science.

“If you prefer to proceed on the basis of anecdotal evidence and what your mate says in the bar, rugby should ignore you. If you say the game is going soft you should try playing it today, and if your argument relies on “common wisdom” know that it might be the former; it is rarely the latter.”

Rugby journalist Paul Williams was also prepared to give the law change a chance, saying: “It’s definitely worth a trial. May work. May actually improve the game. It’s worth a shot.”

Australian rugby legend David Campese gave the move his full backing, by writing: “Great news. It should be the same at all levels.”

And World Rugby – the worldwide governing body for the sport – applauded the RFU for being proactive in addressing the issues.

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World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin said in a statement: “Last year World Rugby opened discussions with unions about lowering the tackle height in the community game around the globe.

“We welcome the RFU taking these proactive steps, rugby will never stand still when it comes to player welfare and this is a prime example of the sport, once again, putting our words into action.”

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