As the fallout continues from the Rugby Football Union’s decision to implement a waist-high limit for tackling in community rugby, World Rugby has confirmed it intends to follow suit with a reduction in the defensive height at the elite level of the game.
In an interview with The Telegraph, World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said the global governing body would in the coming years make changes to the legal tackling height. No shift will come before this year’s World Cup, and may it be a slower burn than at the community level, with a chance that law adjustments might not be legislated before the next global showpiece rolls around in Australia in 2027.
“Yes, we’re looking to make sure that we are implementing a lower tackle height across all parts of the game,” Gilpin told The Telegraph. “How that’s actually implemented is slightly different in the community game to the elite game.”
It is clear that the governing body has set course for the future as it finds itself engaged with lawsuits brought about by former players who suffered hits to the head while playing rugby and are facing a range of debilitating ailments.
Just this week Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson posted a picture to Twitter of himself in bed, with the accompanying caption: When i feel like I’m being swallowed up by worry feeling really low, anxious & everything seems to be getting too much, head aches & feel like i just don’t want to be here. I’m 44 & have to hide & recharge.”
Thompson is one of more than 185 players who have launched legal action against the RFU, World Rugby and Welsh Rugby Union.
This was me this afternoon. Taken by Steph. When i feel like I’m being swallowed up by worry feeling really low, anxious & everything seems to be getting too much, head aches & feel like i just don’t want to be here. I’m 44 & have to hide & recharge. #braininjury #dementia #CTE pic.twitter.com/gWwuGex0an
— Stephen Thompson MBE (@Tommo33s) January 25, 2023
While Gilpin indicated that a lowering of the tackle height at the elite level of the game would not go as far as the waist, he said the research into head-on-head contact and related concussions showed the need for change was abundantly clear.
“The RFU, obviously, is in the process of implementing some changes around tackle height that we support,” Gilpin told The Telegraph.
“Because we know, from all of the research and science and medicine, that lowering the tackle height is a really important part of making the game safer.
“There’s a lot of work to do to educate people. But we’ve got to, as a sport, try to find that really difficult but hugely important balance between safety, but making the game entertaining to watch.
“It’s not binary. It’s not one or the other. It’s how do we make the game safer and a better spectacle to watch and a better game to play?
“It’s tough because it’s a really, really complex message to deliver. On one level, it’s very simple. We know from all the research that’s been done, and it is incredibly comprehensive, you’re four-and-a-half times more likely to sustain a head injury when you tackle from an upright position than when the tackler is bent at the waist.
“We need to get players tackling lower at every part of the game. Obviously, there’s an elite part of the game where we’re doing a huge amount of work, and we’ve used sanctions, and red cards in particular, trying to drive changes in behaviour.
“When you look at the community game, it’s challenging to roll that out on a global basis.”
There has been widespread anger since the RFU made the decision to instigate a waist-high limit for community rugby in England, with many players, coaches and officials dismayed at both that decision and the lack of consultation around it.
The RFU has responded to those complaints, saying it plans to engage with the community game before settling on the exact parameters of its controversial decision.
“We consider the decision to reduce the tackle height to be the start of the process, to allow for a period of engagement in the coming weeks with groups of coaches, players and referees, drawn from across the country and from all levels of the game, including the men’s, women’s and age grade game, over the detail intent and implications of the law change, before finalising it,” the RFU said on Wednesday.
The RFU’s decision to lower its tackle height to the waist was a hot topic at this week’s Six Nations launch, with Ireland coach Andy Farrell and captain Jonny Sexton among those to voice their disapproval.
Farrell said a waist-high limit would leave some kids as “sitting ducks”.
“If you are ever just saying to a kid ‘you need to tackle lower’, then you become even more vulnerable in my opinion,” Farrell said.
“If you’re just sitting there with your arms in front, trying to wrap, with your head down, you’re a sitting duck.
“The coaching and technique of how it’s applied to tackling below the waist is absolutely crucial, otherwise we’re going to have a serious problem.”
One of the criticisms of the decision is that it will lead to just as many, or even more, concussions from defenders catching a knee or a hip to the head from the ball-carrier as a result of attempting to tackle lower.
It is an opinion shared by Sexton, who has endured his fair share of knocks to the head from a career that has spanned more than 100 Tests.
“Of course we need to get the head shots out of the game, but the tackles we really need to take out of the game are the reckless, out-of-control, sprinting out of the line,” Farrell said.
“It’s not like you can’t get concussed by chopping someone’s knees. I see a hell of a lot of concussions from people getting their head on the wrong side, a knee to the temple or a hip even to the side of the head. So, I strongly disagree.”
Meanwhile, England captain Owen Farrell, who was recently suspended for four games for a dangerous tackle while playing for Saracens in the Premiership, said players at the elite level had a responsibility to help bring about change across rugby.
“The game is trying to become a safer game, which is good,” Farrell said.
“You can see there is a lot of it happening at the minute, there are a lot of cards at the minute.
“We as England are going to have to try and make sure we are on the right side of that and pushing it in terms of playing the game hard but safe and fair.
“Obviously being a leader in the team I want to be a big part of that.”
News that World Rugby intends to lower the legal tackling height for professional rugby is likely to see individual unions across the world fast-tracking plans they may have had to follow the RFU’s move in their own countries.
New Zealand Rugby had already implemented a below-the-sternum height for its community game, while Rugby Australia issued a statement to ESPN indicating that it would be watching both the effects of that plan and the one set to come into place in England.
“We are naturally the beneficiary of a huge amount of research undertaken by World Rugby – and we work with them and other National Unions on maximising player welfare at all levels,’ the statement read.
“Our key focus in 2023 remains on correct tackle technique – which is critical to player safety – and we will continue to drive this priority with all coaches in 2023.”