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The players set to profit from Wales' new gameplan

With the Pivac era now a distant memory, Warren Gatland has a rich seam of talent to select from in the Six Nations

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Waistline tackling is the death of rugby

By Jonathan Beardmore
Members of the Barnes side cut dejected figures at the final whistle during the National League Two South match between Taunton Titans and Barnes at the Commsplus Stadium on March 02, 2019 in Taunton, England. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

For 20 years playing rugby has been a pillar of my life. It is no exaggeration to say that, yesterday, the RFU destroyed it.

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From the 2023/24 season, all rugby played in the National Leagues and below will be a poor impression of the game we played the year before, and the many decades before that, with the tackle height reduced to waist height or below.

Furthermore, the ball carrier will be ‘encouraged to play in a way not to endanger the tackler with a sudden change of height’, whatever that mealy-mouthed, committee-designed statement means. To speak more plainly, they have killed our game, and done so with without consulting us.

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Don’t get me wrong, there will have been some sort of  ‘consultation’ with tame academics, activists, and a range of ‘experts’ whose mind was already made up.

Lots will be made of these people’s ‘expertise’ and anyone questioning the decisions will be met with derision. They will be browbeaten and told they don’t understand the context, much like I was when I asked someone partly responsible for this decision for an explanation.

Naturally, the so-called experts will totally disregard what the players who play the game want. In fact, that is the least of the experts’ concerns. Instead, we are told it’s for our own good and something to do with concussions. We are expected to believe that the game we have played for over a hundred years has suddenly got too dangerous for amateurs to play.

Concussions are a huge issue but not for the amateur game, which is as safe or safer than it ever has been. The real issue is the 20-stone mega-athletes in the pro game, repeatedly hitting each other with ever-increasing force every year. The difference between this and the amateurs could not be starker, from the obvious difference in the force of the hit, to the number of hits and also the variety of hits that cause concussion. For professionals, it’s not just direct head contact that is concussive.

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However, the pro game is going to be unaffected by the changes in the law. Why? Because that’s what pays the lucrative RFU executive salaries. In fact, it’s money, not safety, that is the driving force behind the changes of RFU policy – but the precise reason for the actions is a little more complex.

The RFU have a cultish mantra of ‘growing the game’. This sounds good – but what does it mean?

Does it mean more participation? Does it mean bigger sponsorships? Does it mean more eyes on the screen while the game is being played?

Presumably, it means a bit of all three. However, this mind-boggling decision is going to lead to two classes of people in rugby: Those that play the sport, and those that consume the output.

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If you’re not good enough for the top level then hard luck, the game you love is no longer available to you.

However, there is a small problem. The consumers the RFU has are not the consumers the RFU wants. Rugby’s most die-hard fans are drawn from rugby clubs. Rugby clubs, if you have not noticed, are full of players and therein lies the problem.

Community rugby will welcome absolutely anyone into a club but the game itself is not inclusive in the literal sense. Once you apply the filter of playing rugby to the general population you’re left with a not-very diverse crowd, certainly not a demographic the RFU can put on a pitching deck to a major corporate sponsor.

Traditionally, sponsors come to sports to appropriate their values. Now the tables have turned, and sporting bodies are demeaningly begging brands for cash by professing their cultural alignment with them, desperately trying to mimic the sponsor’s purported values.

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Putting it bluntly, products want to be associated with a diverse group of mixed-educated elites, not a clubhouse full of large men, post-game who have had a couple of beers.

People who pay attention to this stuff might have noticed that the RFU have been on the path of disassociation from its members for a long time.

CEO Bill Sweeney is embarrassed by the traditional song ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ refusing to sing it as 80,000 fans belt it out in disagreement. Another example is the rebranding of the Saxon’s to England A, so the RFU could go a ‘different way’.

So we are presented with a quandary: What do you do if the reason you can’t ‘grow the game’ and appease sponsors is the very nature of the game itself? Easy: You change the game.

By making a new game that removes the risk you can appeal to a whole new range of people who might not have fancied the game in its previous full-blooded incarnation.

Changing contact rugby to entice new participation is not the only trick the RFU has up its sleeve. We have seen the RFU making encroachments into the world of touch rugby, strongly suggesting, with a menacing hint of compulsion, that every club should offer a touch rugby option. Interestingly they also want to look at ‘safeguarding’ for touch players to ensure they are not ‘pressured’ into playing contact. This tells you everything you need to know about the attitude towards the community game, and those that play it and rely upon it.

The RFU are intent on trying to manufacture an army of diverse, drone consumers to fund the professional game. Of course, this will never work.

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In America the NBA has been trying to convince its sponsors of their diverse credentials for some time, experimenting with new geographies and demographics for a decade.

The results were damaging and wholly avoidable. Rather than stimulating an exciting new fan base, the NBA ended up simply exploiting their current fan base. As ever more cash is needed to ‘grow the game’ the sports authorities end up instead ‘fracking the game’, trying to squeeze ever more money from fewer fans. This opens the door to companies that do not respect their audience or the sport, like gambling companies, alcohol firms or, in the most extreme case: fraudulent crypto exchanges.

This will be the inevitable route for rugby when it abandons the millions of fans for the fabricated body of cool young things just dying to fall in love with a sport they have never heard of. . All in the name of ‘growing the game’. You cannot kill something and claim to grow it.

One must ask how the RFU can simultaneously be the guardian of the community game and the promoter of the pro game when their needs are so different – and in this case diametrically opposed. It’s a clear conflict of interest.

You can understand the dilemma for the RFU. Why would you want to focus on the paltry revenues in community rugby in Wakefield, Bury or Exeter when you could stay in London enjoying big-ticket sporting events and all the associated benefits? It’s a bit like expecting the NFL commissioner to care about local high school football on Superbowl weekend. Of course, quite rightly, the NFL is in no way responsible for amateur sport. But the RFU are!

In the case of the RFU they see their profitable business as Twickenham. Anything that happens in the provinces, the small towns, the lands far, far away from HQ – Well, they could do without that. Again, conveniently forgetting that they are the custodians.

If we had a body that was set up exclusively to look after the amateur game and preserve it rather than chase corporate cash, would this have been allowed to happen? Absolutely not.

The reality is the RFU have been totally reactive to the concussion debate, putting caution and risk mitigation ahead of the interest of their members. At no point has the RFU come out swinging at the likes of Allyson Pollock, Darren White and Chris Nowitski. Indeed, it is fair to say they have betrayed every player, every club and every local union by prioritising the campaigning of activists like this over their own members.

Furthermore, the RFU says that the changes are science-based. I am sure they are, but no one asked for this. Whereas rugby is united in wanting to know more about concussion prevention for the professionals there was zero clamour for research into the amateur game that has been the same for decades. No one is forced to play amateur rugby, no one I have ever met was uncomfortable with the risks we take every weekend playing rugby, in fact – outside of a handful of Twitter lunatics – I have not met a single person who has ever asked for this law change.

Still, some will look at this and say: ‘What’s the problem, we’ll see how it goes’ but we know from the pandemic that once a player stops it’s hard to get them back. The big difference between now and then is that back then people did not have the option to replace rugby. Now they do, and when the RFU realise their mistake these players won’t be returning.

You can also bet that when this all comes out in the wash, nobody will be held accountable for this. They will hide behind all manner of confected data, shrugging their shoulders while explaining to marketing executives how their demographic is now more suitable to promote their products.

What they won’t be able to admit is what they had to ruin in the process.

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