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Ross Tucker: 'Doing nothing wasn't an option'

By Daniel Gallan
Dublin , Ireland - 24 October 2020; Garry Ringrose of Ireland goes down with an injury before leaving the pitch during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Ross Tucker, the respected sports scientist and research consultant for World Rugby, begins our conversation with a clear message.


We’re discussing the Rugby Football Unions’s decision to lower the tackle height limit in the community game in England to the waist. It is a decision that has been met with almost universal derision. Players, journalists and fans have rallied against the law change in a rare show of unity in an otherwise polarised sport. MPs have weighed in on the discourse with the matter raised in the House of Commons.

“The lack of communication has alienated a lot of people,” Tucker says. “Maybe they’ve [the RFU] misunderstood on how best to bring people along. It’s important you do that otherwise you’ll never get the buy-in that you need.”

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What happens inside the brain during a concussion | Beyond 80 Knocked
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What happens inside the brain during a concussion | Beyond 80 Knocked

Tomorrow we’ll unpack the ideological and political implications this new law may have on a sport that is seemingly tearing apart at the seams. Tucker has a lot to say on how the precise location of a ball carrier’s hip has opened up a new front in rugby’s culture war.

But first we’ll unpack the science. As Tucker says, “The data is clear. I support the decision that’s been made. They should have gone about it a little differently and they are getting blowback as a result. But the science shows that they’ve made this decision with the best intentions.”

Tom Heathcote
Worcester’s Tom Heathcote gets attention after sustaining a head injury during an English Premiership match between Worcester and Wasps (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The end goal is to reduce head injuries in rugby. At the elite level a concussion occurs roughly once every 250 to 300 tackles, or one in every five matches. According to Tucker the risk of concussion is 25 per cent lower in the community game. But, because of the sheer volume of community matches in all age groups, our perception of the problem is distorted.


“If there are a thousand community games around the country, and there’s probably more than that, you’ve got 200 concussions per weekend,” Tucker explains. “That’s astonishing and that’s why this matters. So when people ask why this has started at the amateur level, that’s why.”

Regardless of the level, ball carriers suffer 30 per cent of all concussions while tacklers, who by design must put their heads in harm’s way, experience 70 per cent. Head to head collisions are the most dangerous.

“If you were to successfully eliminate all high tackles, as the law currently stands [above the shoulder line], you’d immediately get rid of 90 per cent of the concussions experienced by the ball carrier,” Tucker says. “They might still get concussed, either through whiplash or through ground contact, but the major risk would be mitigated.”



As for the tackler, concussion rates would drop by 30% which would mean that concussions in rugby would be reduced by 40 per cent if all high tackles were to disappear.

“Doing nothing wasn’t an option,” Tucker says. “We have the data that shows the degree of risk. Sports federations constantly have to walk a tightrope between changing too much and changing too little, but in this instance they had to try and do something.”

The unions in France and New Zealand have already implemented successful trials that prove that a lowering of the tackle height reduces the risk of head injuries.

The French case is particularly pertinent where, in 2019, after four rugby related deaths across a single season, the French Rugby Federation (FFR) lowered the tackle height to the waist and placed a ban on ball carriers stooping in to contact in the amateur game.

There were teething problems at first. Penalty counts rose as illegally high tackles rose from 2.2 to 6.1 a game in the first two months of the trial. Referees were also inconsistent in how they officiated this new law.

But four months later the number of high tackles had dropped to 3.8 per match. Offloads increased, as did the number of passes. There were fewer kicks. Most crucially, the number of head-to-head contacts fell from 9.5 per match to 3.5 while the number of blue cards, brandished by referees for suspected concussions, dropped by 27 per cent.


“The French were ecstatic,” Tucker says. “Not only with the reduction in head injuries and concussions on the field but with the way the game had evolved. The reports are that the game is so much more fun. Ruck speed is so quick, the ball carrier is never wrapped up in the tackle so he can offload or place the ball to keep the game flowing.

“We’ve also seen the game become more evasive with ball carriers looking for space rather than contact. We know from studies in rugby league that when the ball carrier adopts an evasive action, in other words side-steps or spins, then the risk for both the ball carrier and the tackler drops by 80 per cent.

“Because the ball carrier can’t drop low into contact they’re forced to look for space. Why would you look for contact if you have to stay upright? As for the tackler, we know from mouthguard data that head acceleration is lower the lower you tackle. So you’ve got a tackler going low and a ball carrier staying high and being tackled around the hips. That’s the safest place to be.”

The FFR’s report, which showed 63 per cent reduction in head collisions, failed to mention contacts between the ball carriers knee or hip and the tackler’s head. Tucker doesn’t not believe that this was necessarily intellectually dishonest, but he does say that he’d be interested in that data. He believes that there would naturally be an increase in these sorts of collisions.

Critics of the RFU believe that the board has made a drastic decision without enough research behind them. But, as Tucker says, “You paralyse the whole thing by asking for the evidence because you’ll never get the evidence if you don’t make the change.


“It would be like people criticising a chicken before it’s hatched. It’s a double chicken-egg situation. And there was enough data. All the data that the RFU has used – from France, from New Zealand, from South Africa – is built of multiple studies themselves.

“The data is a little messy. They’re ecologically observational studies and not lab controlled studies. But the outcomes of those studies confirm that there is enough reason to believe the initial studies on risk, so it’s worth pursuing.

“I believe we’re facing the right direction. There is a question concerning how quickly one should move in that direction. But I don’t think you can challenge the direction we’re going.”

Part 2 of the interview will be published tomorrow…


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