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'Rugby is not an evasion sport' - SBW weighs in on tackle height controversy

By Ian Cameron
Sonny Bill Williams

Former All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams has become the latest heavyweight star to weigh in on the RFU’s controversial decision to lower tackle height in amateur rugby in England.

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The radical move has been unanimously approved by RFU Council members in an attempt to support player welfare, notably reducing head impact exposure.

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

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The decision has been greeted with an uproar from angry fans who believe the law change comes at the detriment of the sport.

Williams weighed in on the decision, saying that rugby was not a collision sport as implied by the RFU statement on the matter.

“Rugby is not an “evasion sport”,” wrote Sonny Bill. “Rugby is about creating space through manipulating and moving defenses, contact is part of the game. We must be careful thinking one rule will work for all. I know I’m not one to talk, but trust me this wont fix rugby’s concussion problems.”

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Alluding to his world-renowned offloading skills, Williams joked that the new rules would suit his game: “On the bright side – guaranteed to get your arms free in every tackle… Anyone in England looking for a recently retired off-loader?”

Williams is just the latest big-name player to lend his voice to outrage over the law change which will be implemented in July.

Former Namibia and Saracens back row Jacques Burger wrote on Twitter: “Trials on compulsory waist down tackles is crazy. Ball carriers being protected but who is looking after the tackler? There will be so many neck and head injuries during this. Abandon.”

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Though data from France suggests a modest reduction in concussions from waist-high tackling, former Harlequins CEO and now Fijian Drua boss Mark Evans noted that another trial in the RFU Championship have shown the opposite. “So what has altered in 3 years to lead to the changes recently announced?

He then went on to write: “Call me old fashioned but I still believe in evidence-based decision making. So if the game I love is making fundamental changes, which might possibly have huge repercussions, I’d like to see the evidence laid out. Particularly since most of the research I have read on this subject seems to point to most of the concern being around multiple sub-concussive collisions, which leads an emphasis on the importance of a reduction in the number & time spent on contact in training rather than tackle height. Yet I can find no reference to the evidence the RFU is basing their decision on. At the very least they need to make the research they are convinced by publicly known and available.”

England prop Joe Marler questioned how the RFU came to the conclusion, noting: “Who the hell did they get to advise on this?”

Even big names in other sports took exception, with England cricketer Ben Stokes writing: “Let’s lower the tackle height but bring in a higher chance of the attackers knees hitting defenders in the head. And also let’s take out any consideration for instinctive athleticism in the heat of sport.”

Stokes also pointed out that his father’s career ended after sustained a broken neck care of a head to knee contact. “Small sample. My Dad’s professional career got ended earlier due to a broken neck from a knee to the head whilst tackling. Would you rather concussion or broken neck?”

Not everyone is against the ruling, with sports scientist Ross Tucker saying that the decision is evidence based and will reduce concussions. “Legal tackle height is being lowered to the waist in Eng. A decision 6 years in the making, & justified by evidence of risk, but criticized as unnecessary & unevidenced. I wrote this to explain how we got here, & to commend France for leading the way,” wrote Tucker, with a link to an article on the matter.

A petition against the law change on Change.org has garnered over 30,000 signatures in the space of under 24 hours.

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