Ross Tucker: 'The public have made their mind up without looking at the evidence'
The ‘Ship of Thesus’ is a thought experiment that predates the birth of rugby union by more than 1,700 years. Our oldest record of the conundrum comes to us from the ancient Greek philosopher, Plutarch, who wondered how many alterations a ship can undertake before it ceases to be the same ship.
Centuries later, the Englishman Thomas Hobbes extended the idea and ever since the notion has proliferated the discourse in cognitive psychology, quantum physics and, most recently, the fate of an egg shaped ball.
At the time of writing the Rugby Football Union is facing a mutiny from 250 amateur clubs across England as the organisation’s CEO, Bill Sweeny, must now deal with the threat of a no confidence vote.
The source of the clubs’ ire is a controversial tackle law that will reduce the height limit of a legal hit in the amateur game from the shoulders to the waist in order to reduce head collisions. The latest reports suggest that this law could also take hold at the elite game, thereby changing the dynamics of the sport forever.
But how much change is too much? For Ross Tucker, a respected sports scientist and consultant for World Rugby, there is no obvious answer.
“This entire conversation has been framed in absolute terms, and it shouldn’t be the case,” Tucker says. “It’s not about reducing concussions. It’s about how much you are prepared to reduce concussions until it’s a different sport.
“On the one extreme you can do nothing. But that’s not how sport works. Rugby has constantly been evolving in the professional era in an effort to make the game more safe.
“On the other extreme you could eliminate contact altogether and just play touch rugby. The challenge for those running the sport is deciding where you fall on the spectrum. It becomes a cost benefit analysis. What price are you willing to pay to change the game? No one knows but it’s clear that change is required.”
Yesterday we analysed the data that proves without doubt that lowering the tackle height reduces concussions on the field as well as long term brain injuries. Cards have failed to act as a deterrent, though Tucker believes that we’re still too early in the experiment to make an adequate judgment if sin-bins and sending offs have actually altered behaviour.
World Rugby’s High Tackle Framework was launched in 2019 and the Head Contact Process was initiated last year. These are among the two best tools the game has to solve one of its major problems, but they’re still in their infancy. Besides, inconsistent application of the high tackle laws have proved problematic.
“The premise is that sanction equals a strong message which equals behavioural change,” Tucker says. “If you break that chain you lose consistency. Look at the Henry Slade incident [where the player escaped punishment after receiving a red card for a clear high shot on Kurt-Lee Arendse during the Champions Cup this month]. What message does that send?”
“Any law requires buy-in. Without it you’re in trouble. And the English are facing a problem now because the rule change has already been met with so much resistance. Implementing it now will be so difficult as everyone has rejected it out of hand.
“The public have seemingly made their mind up without looking at the evidence. They’ve reached a verdict and concocted a worst case scenario but haven’t allowed it to play out. This is being driven by emotion rather than logic.”
It remains to be seen how many amateur players leave the game. Taking the temperature on social media (an admittedly blistering environment at the best of times) it would seem that a mass exodus is imminent.
But it’s worth asking how many players will stay once the game is made less dangerous. Or how many parents will now allow their children to join a club, safe in the knowledge that their risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in later life has drastically diminished.
Personally I’m in favour of the new law change primarily because I am a father. I love rugby – I was reared on the euphoria of the Springboks’ 1995 World Cup win – and I have a young son who loves nothing more than running around and crashing into objects. For now it’s stuffed toys but I’ve had flashes envisioning him doing the same under the bright lights of Twickenham.
Though I’ll admit to a double tug. Part of what makes the game so appealing lies in its brutality.
Monster hits prod the same part of our brain that is stimulated when we watch violent films. It’s not a blood lust, per se, but we’re at least on the same spectrum. If we lose that, do we lose something that is integral to rugby’s soul?
A counter argument would focus on the tradeoff. As Tucker points out, the comparable experiment in France has produced a faster game with more offloads, more passes, fewer kicks and a dramatic increase in the speed of the game. Ball carriers are compelled to target space rather than look for contact. Scrum-halves are duty bound to reach the ruck in even less time than they otherwise would.
Forget the knocks to the head. This version of rugby is sure to bring in more fans looking for contributions to the highlights reel. And if we still keep line-outs, scrums, mauls and jackals, are we really sacrificing that much?
“The RFU missed a trick because they needed to make a decisive call but they also needed to be more transparent about their own thinking,” Tucker adds. “Instead, there has been major confusion.
“But I also think they needed to make a decisive call and the idea of creating change by consensus is impossible. If the demand from the community is to be involved in the decision making, that’s what will paralyse the whole thing into inaction. It’s impossible to find consensus on complex issues, because the people you’re asking don’t have the full set of information with which to contribute their decisions.
“The other point is that people are insisting on seeing the evidence for themselves. I guess this is normal and good, but it’s not being done with noble intent. The experts are in positions for a reason, and decision making is the reason. So what’s happened is the undermining of leadership because of mistrust.”
Perhaps your view on the matter depends on which side of the culture war you peg your tent. Has rugby gone soft? Or is it changing too slowly? Should players accept their fate and accept the risk? Or do we need to protect them at all costs, even if the price we pay is creating an unrecognizable game?
I don’t have an answer. Plutarch, Hobbes and smarter people than me have struggled with the same questions.
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Nice one.Go to comments
good to see a positive artcle negativity has a habit of compounding on itself bring on 2024Go to comments