Rugby has reached a crossroads. At all levels of the game, the issue of the long-term effects of repeated head trauma has taken legal root. Last week, 55 amateur players joined 275 of their professional brethren in a lawsuit aimed at World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union in England and the Welsh Rugby Union in Wales.
They ranged from elite male amateur players to retired female internationals, to youth players and one man who was diagnosed with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in the post-mortem. Richard Boardman, spokesman for the law firm Rylands Garth, who are representing all parties concerned in the suit, explained the kernel of the matter very clearly:
“It doesn’t matter what level of the game you played or are playing at, whether it’s at school or adult rugby, and as a professional or amateur, male or female, we are sadly seeing the same alarming neurological impairments at all levels of the game.
“This is a life-and-death issue for many. The vast majority of the current and former players we represent love the game and don’t want to see it harmed in any way.
“We now also represent the estates of deceased players who were found to have CTE post-mortem, which is definitive proof that a contact sport was responsible. Those involved just want to make the sport safer so current and future generations don’t end up like them.
“This is why the claimants are asking the rugby governing bodies to make a number of immediate changes to save the sport, such as a mandatory limit on contact in training, reducing non-injury substitutions, having a more effective pitch-side diagnostic tool than the HIA, setting up a brain injuries passport, using independent neuro-experts for research and guidance and extending the return to play (following a concussion) to 28 days.”
If the impairments in the quality of later-life for many ex-players, via conditions like early-onset dementia, are a very serious matter, so are the potential legal consequences for the sport itself. Back in 2014, the National Football League in the United States was forced to settle a class action led by 4,500 ex-players for $765 million, with the final agreement allotting up to $1 billion in compensation for retired players with medical conditions linked to repeated head trauma.
One of the fundamental problems at elite level is that individual defenders are coached to make tackles on-square and as high as possible without attracting refereeing scrutiny.
The RFU council announced radical new proposals for lowering tackle height at every level of the game below elite professional on the same day that Rylands Garth added those 55 amateur players to their suit. Whether by accident or design, there was a shared realisation that something, somewhere had to be done.
Based on evidence from studies in France, where a similar experiment has been running for the last three years, the RFU council suggested that the changes generated a 63 per cent reduction in head contact and “a more fluid game with reduced levels of kicking, increased passing, offloads and line breaks.” The basic idea is to move rugby away from collisions and towards a more movement-based game.
One of the fundamental problems at elite level is that individual defenders are coached to make tackles on-square and as high as possible without attracting refereeing scrutiny. That is where they can exert maximum power, with the optimal chance of dislodging the ball and producing a fumble or turnover. That represents a KPI in modern defence.
Likewise, defensive systems are designed to protect the width of the field between the two 15-metre lines, with a ‘fold’ of covering defenders soaking up the remaining distance to the sideline. The days of the drift defence and tackling with an arm from the side are for the most part dead, except in emergencies.
Giving up the offload, where the ball carrier is able to get his arms up and over the level of the tackle and release the ball to a support player is a big no-no with in-line tackling. As ex-Ireland centre, turned BT Sport pundit Brian O’Driscoll commented:
“The thing is you want to play on the line, you want to play on the cusp of legality. That’s what Owen Farrell does.
“He gets one (tackle) wrong every so often but if you were a teammate of his you wouldn’t want him changing too much because that aggression is a hallmark of his competitiveness and his ability to dominate situations and that is such a catalyst for the rest of his team as well.
“So you know, when do tackle high and lock the ball up, you do run the risk of occasionally picking up a yellow or a red card.”
The fine margins can be illustrated by two tackles made by Saracens hooker Jamie George in the recent Heineken Champions Cup match against Edinburgh:
It is worth remembering the cardinal points from this sample. There are two tacklers, with one (Ben Earl) going low and the other (George) absorbing the momentum of the ball carrier (burly Edinburgh prop Pierre Schoeman) high and square. Earl takes away the legs while George prevents Schoeman getting the ball away in contact. The level of tackle height is as marginal as O’Driscoll describes it – it is shoulder-to-chest, but it could easily become shoulder-to-throat, or shoulder-to-jaw with a minor change in height.
Now compare that tackle with this incident, which earned Jamie George a yellow card:
It is the same format, with one tackler knifing in low and George standing high and square in front of the ball carrier. In both instances, he has some flex at the hips and knees. The key difference is the height of the ball carrier, Edinburgh flanker Luke Crosbie. Crosbie enters contact lower than Schoeman, with more forward body-lean, and that means the two players make contact head-to-head.
George came off worse in the collision, leaving the field for an HIA and being subsequently removed from Steve Borthwick’s England squad for the Six Nations. At the same time, it was he who received the yellow card, only ‘mitigated’ down from the ultimate sanction because of his passivity in the action of making the tackle. He is the one absorbing the blow rather than delivering it.
There was an identical scenario, and a very similar outcome later in the half:
Saracens prop Marco Riccioni is attempting to square up on the ball carrier (Grant Gilchrist in the red hat), and ‘square’ tends to bring ‘high’ along with it as a combo, at least in terms of tackle technique. Riccioni receives a head-butt in the face and is yellow-carded for his trouble.
The issue with tackling on-square and locking up the ball high tends to be magnified when there is a second defender entering the situation low in a ‘double-team’:
As in the first Jamie George incident, the initial tackle is made low to take the legs, and the body height of the ball carrier (Northampton’s Dave Ribbans) drops with it automatically as he approaches the second ‘high’ defender, Munster’s Jack O’Donoghue. Shoulder hits head and that means a red card for the young Munster man.
“What happens if a ball carrier bends at the hips, from close range, aiming towards the ground? That’s what happened in the Championship trial in England, having spoken to people about it. When one team was defending close to the goal line, the ball carrier was diving towards the ground to score. There’s no way you can tackle an attacker below the waist in those instances. My concern is that the ball carrier will go so low that it will be impossible for a defender to stop them. So, do defenders just have to allow attackers to score in those instances? Or pray for a miraculous try-saving tackle every time? That’s unrealistic.
“The law change mentions, too, that ball carriers who drop their body height when approaching a defender will be penalised. When you’re running with the ball and a tackler approaches, naturally you will adapt a bracing position to feel more secure. It’s not feasible to expect ball carriers to maintain an unnatural, bolt-upright body position when bracing for contact.”
Another version of the same topic occurs at clean-out time:
The defender (Toulouse’s Dorian Aldegheri) bends down to ‘jackal’ for the ball before the ball carrier (Sale wing Tom O’Flaherty) can even present it. The window between the ball carrier going to ground and his first support (lock Cobus Wiese, in the headband) arriving is slightly too wide, and only a cleanout applied with force is likely to remove 120-kilo Aldegheri from the scene. When the two players collide, both have their heads a few inches above the ground and neither can see or assess the point of impact accurately.
“We did a piece on the [BT Sport highlights] show on Sunday with Lawrence [Dallaglio] and Craig [Doyle] where you are going to have to potentially leave players in the jackal position where there is no access point to clear them out.”
The principle of the ‘jackal’ has been accepted in the modern game when there is little basis in rugby law to support it. Law 15.3 states that “Players involved in all stages of the ruck must have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips” – but all rucks which begin with the jackaling action necessitate that the ruck (formed by two opponents in contact) start with shoulders much lower than hips, which can only increase the level of danger. It might be different if referees forced defenders to respect a distinct and immediate placement of the ball by the ball carrier, well away from his body, before they are allowed to try and pick up the ball.
Two of the critical areas are high in-line tackling and low cleanouts. The third is open-field tackling, where the defender is more likely to be moving at high speed, and less able to adjust to moves by the attacker. As O’Driscoll commented,
“I understand why players end up going in high. When you are chasing someone that is very fast the last thing you want to do is drop your body height too soon, because you will lose your ability to go again if they accelerate again, or if they use footwork.
“That is what the very last second is when you want to drop your body height and sometimes people get that timing wrong and where they don’t get into position.”
Here are some examples of this scenario:
In the first two examples, New Zealand prop Angus Taa’vao is caught out by a late switch between Ireland’s James Lowe and Garry Ringrose, and meets Ringrose head-to-head. As with in-line tackling, there is little instinct to drop body height, but plenty to meet the ball carrier square and with force as the distance between defender and ball carrier shrinks.
The same is true when London Irish fullback Ben Loader collides with Stormers outside half Manie Libbok in the final example. As Libbok slows to make the pass, there is no ‘stop’ or dip in height by Loader – if anything, he ends up accelerating into the contact.
The RFU should be applauded for taking decisive action in respect of the head trauma issues in rugby. Nobody knows whether they will be proved right or wrong, but at least the experiment will produce a set of results which can be analysed and assessed.
Nigel Owens asked the most basic question of all, in relation to the proposed changes in tackle height: ‘Is it referee-able?’. How can the referee monitor changes in body height by the ball carrier, and judge them against those made by the defender in real time?
In practice, the ‘low-and-high’ double-team may slowly die out with outcomes so unpredictable, and there may be an accompanying rise in reliance on the chop tackle. Open-field defence may shift more towards more grab- or arm-tackles, even if it increases the ratio of offloads.
At the cleanout, the ‘you go low, I’ll go lower’ situation can be cleared up by insistence on shoulders above hips, and a clear and immediate placement of the ball away from the body by the attacker, before any attempt at pick-up by the defender is allowed.
Rugby does not have the financial security to afford an NFL-type payout without bankrupting the entire game, so a start has to be made somewhere.
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