Rugby League set to follow Union on setting new tackle limits

EXCLUSIVE: Rugby League set to follow Union on setting new tackle limits despite controversy as several high-profile players and coaches speak out against new protocols

  • Rugby Football League chairman Simon Johnson has defended the decision
  • The RFL and RFU have both faced several lawsuits from their former players
  • Johnson said ‘it is about making the sport as safe as we can’ amid the changes

Rugby League may follow rugby union in making significant rule changes to improve player safety. The RFU sparked controversy last week after lowering the tackle height for the community game to waist level.

A number of high-profile players and coaches criticised the decision, prompting leading medical experts including Dr Willie Stewart to defend the Rugby Football Union.

Now Simon Johnson, the Rugby Football League chairman, has told The Mail on Sunday that the domestic governing body were ‘constantly looking at the rulebook and collaborate very closely with rugby union and other collision sports on the issue of concussion and player safety’.

The Rugby League, chaired by Simon Johnson (right), may follow rugby union in changing rules to suit player safety

With both the RFL and the RFU facing lawsuits from former players for allegedly not protecting them from potential brain injury, Johnson added: ‘We’re currently undertaking some very innovative research into tackle force, load and the movement of the head.

‘It’s about keeping the excitement, speed and athleticism of the sport but making it as safe as we can.’

Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist at the University of Glasgow and a leading expert on brain injury in sport, said that the ex-professionals who have led the backlash against the RFU might as well volunteer for the widely derided sport of ‘slap-fighting’. It involves combatants striking each other around the head, often with gruesome results.

Johnson insisted research into ‘tackle force, load and movement of the head’ is currently being undertaken 

Stewart said the waist-high limit on tackling was ‘necessary’ and cited a medical paper that he co-authored which found that former internationals were twice as likely as the general population to develop neurodegenerative disease.

Stewart wrote: ‘Old pros and armchair experts declaring “end of the game” [with] sport trying to protect current and future players should volunteer themselves for slap-fighting.’

Stewart also cited a study published in the British Medical Journal, which compared the medical data of 412 former Scotland rugby internationals with 1,236 members of the general population.

St Helens legend Bobbie Goulding has filed a claim against the RFL related to his career 

Johnson said he is taking the claim ‘very seriously’ and wants to ensure ‘the case is run fairly and properly’

It found rugby players were more than twice as likely to develop neurodegenerative disease later in life. ‘If reducing tackle height might lower this risk, [it] has to happen,’ Stewart wrote.

A growing number of former union players with brain damage, including England’s 2003 World Cup winner Steve Thompson and ex-Wales captain Ryan Jones, are suing their code’s governing bodies for negligence.

Law firm Rylands is also representing 80 ex-league players, including St Helens legend Bobbie Goulding, as part of a separate potential claim against the RFL. Asked about that lawsuit, Johnson added: ‘We take that very seriously and are working with our insurers to ensure that the case is run fairly and properly.’

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