6th February 2023
The Rugby Football Union (the RFU) has announced that, from 1 July 2023, new changes will be implemented in community games to improve player safety. The main rule change will be that players only be allowed to tackle from the waist down. The RFU believes this will reduce the risk of head injuries and concussion.
The announcement of the change came at the same time as news that 55 former amateur rugby players are bringing legal action against the RFU and World Rugby for negligence in their failure to protect the players from head injuries (and related problems) during their rugby careers.
Head injuries, concussion and the associated ramifications on athletes in sport is a topic that the majority of professional sport governing bodies have had to discuss in recent years. Particularly in contact sports such as rugby and football, the issue is a key discussion topic across both amateur and professional sports due to the prominent number of head injury cases reported in the media. The RFU’s decision to change the rules has no doubt been impacted by the series of lawsuits against the NFL for failing to protect players against head injuries. On 29 August 2022, the NFL agreed to settle the various lawsuits for an enormous $765 million.
There have been a number of law changes and new protocols brought in over the last few years to reduce head injuries and concussion in Rugby Union, but this is by far the largest (and the most radical) change to the game since its official formation in 1871.
The main change in the new rules are that tackles must be made at the line of the waist and below on ball carriers. Previously, other players could tackle a ball carrier up to shoulder height.
The RFU’s statement announced that evidence has consistently demonstrated that higher contact on the ball carrier and closer proximity of the ball carrier and tacklers’ heads are associated with larger head impacts and therefore an increased risk of concussion. These new rules are designed to improve player safety in rugby and the change will attempt to reduce the head impact exposure and concussion risks for both the ball carrier and tacklers.
The overarching message of the RFU’s unanimous decision to change the rules is that the game will now follow the “principle of evasion“. Part of this approach will seek to stop ball carriers dipping into tackles late, something which increases the proximity of the ball carrier and tackler’s heads, thereby increasing the chances of head on head collisions.
The changes announced by the RFU are only at a community level, so all age-grade and adult levels – from National One and below in the men’s game and the Championship and below in the women’s game.
The reaction to the changes have been split, with some praising the rule change for the benefits for player safety in rugby, whilst leaving others distraught that the game as they know it will now be completely different.
The RFU have noted that this is the first in a series of communications on this matter and is intended to give players, fans and officials advanced notice of the law changes being made. Further notices and detailed guidance is expected to be provided by the RFU, including guidance as to how amateurs and age-grade levels can prepare talented young players for the step up to professional rugby – where the old rules will remain.
In spite of the assurances about improvements to player safety in rugby, there is already a petition in circulation signed by over seventy thousand individuals calling for the RFU to revoke the changes. The petition claims that “dropping the tackle height to below the waist will make the game a farcical spectacle to watch” and some have even gone so far as stating that the changes could be the “beginning of the end“ for English Rugby Union, especially at a grass roots level.
Many professionals have also criticised the changes, with England internationals such as Joe Marler and Jack Nowell noting their disapproval on Twitter. Concerns have also been raised as to whether the changes will have the desired effects of tackling player safety in rugby, with Johnny Sexton, the current captain of the Ireland team, stating that lower tackles may be just as dangerous and may not result in lowering the number of concussions.
On the other side, Andy Farrell, the current Head Coach of the Ireland team, has stated that his concerns lie in the implementation of the rules by coaches, rather than the changes themselves. Similarly, others have received the rule change as not just necessary for the game to survive, but a positive improvement to the sport, albeit acknowledging that the overall effect of the rule change and its implementation will likely have some initial teething problems.
It is unclear how the change in the “below waist” tackle rule will apply to the variety of elements of rugby that do not naturally fall “below the waist” i.e. choke tackles, mauls, rucks or even tackles between players of a completely different size. The RFU have stated that these issues will be dealt with in detailed FAQs and training materials which will be provided over the next few weeks.
The adjustment for players, referees and even spectators will be huge and the potential for unintended consequences seems high.
Rugby Union has primarily been a game focussed around contact and collision, with stereotypically large players performing particularly well and rising through the ranks to professional rugby. Changing the fabric of the game to a game focussed on evasion does not necessarily lend itself to the type of player who may have previously excelled for their tackling and/or ball carrying skills into contact.
There have been concerns raised by coaches, players and referees at grass roots level that changing the game so drastically will be catastrophic for clubs already struggling to retain players. Amateur clubs are worried that the change in the rules will force older players in particular to hang up their boots for good. However, the change in the rules could encourage more parents to take their children to play rugby. So, while these clubs might lose some of their older players, it may be that concerns over the survival of clubs are alleviated by the promise of growth through the junior sections, which, in time, will filter through to the adult amateur game.
A prominent argument to revoke the rule change is the disparity it will create between the professional and amateur game. Historically, players at amateur levels who developed their skillset later in life could still make the leap to professional rugby with no obstacles if they were good enough. Now, players who do not make it into the academies of the professional clubs (and are, therefore, not trained to tackle above the waist), may not be able to adjust to quickly enough to the different requirements of the professional game.
There are also issues caused for players who are dual registered (i.e. in professional and amateur leagues) where they essentially are playing two different games. The RFU does not have jurisdiction above National One in the men’s game or above the Championship in the women’s game, with these leagues being governed by World Rugby. World Rugby have said that it “welcomes RFU decision on tackle height in community rugby“ and is looking into changing the tackle height in elite rugby. However, it is not clear what this height will be, nor when these changes will be implemented. As such, challenges will remain for players straddling both professional and amateur unless and/or until the rules are the same for both.
A key issue raised by a number of the grass roots players and fans is the lack of consultation and communication by the RFU in this process. Although the reaction in amateur clubs is mixed, those opposing the changes feel that the changes have come out of the blue and generally lack any clear explanation as to the logic behind the “waist high” tackle height change. They allege that the data used by the RFU to approve the changes to the rules seems to primarily come from sources outside of amateur rugby. The argument made by those opposing the rule change is that the data to support the rule change (i.e. analytics to show the number of concussions, the impact and speed of head on head collisions etc.) is simply not in existence. Those against the changes argue that amateur rugby is usually slower, lower impact and less physical than professional rugby, so studies and data from the professional game cannot be used as the basis for changes to the amateur game. For example, is there a risk that lower tackle height requirement could result in an increase in concussions caused by head on knee or head on hip contact?
Lower tackle height laws were trialled during the 2018/2019 men’s Championship season. However, the trial did not result in a permanent change to tackle height as the data suggested that the concussion incidence rate did not differ; albeit, there is a question mark as to whether one season is sufficient time to obtain enough data to conduct thorough analysis.
Arguments are also being raised that the rule changes prohibit players from targeting one of the safest places to tackle, the torso. Changing the tackle height may be more palatable to all if the change was to “sternum height” tackles, as has been trialled in New Zealand.
Ross Tucker notes that there are pros and cons for each of waist and sternum tackle heights. In particular, the margin for error with a waist high tackle means that there is a lower risk of the tackler and the ball carrier having a head collision, but it does mean there is a higher risk of the tackler’s head colliding with the knees / hips of the ball carrier. Conversely, sternum height tackles may not move the tackler’s head far enough away from the highest risk zone of the head. Either way, trials probably need to be carried out for both waist height and sternum height tackles for a decent length of time in order to analyse which law is best at avoiding the most serious concussive head injuries. Unfortunately, such trials have not yet taken place yet, so the RFU were forced to make a decision based on the data available.
Proper consultation might have produced law changes that a greater number of people were happy with (i.e. sternum height tackles or similar). On the flip side, consultations on these matters can take years and still may not find a resolution to please everyone. The RFU felt urgent action was required to address player safety in rugby, and have decided this is the best way to avoid the most serious concussive head injuries.
There is no doubt that player safety is the primary responsibility of national governing bodies in charge of their respective sports. The RFU’s changes are clearly designed to protect players, but have been met with widespread discontent at community level, not least for the gap that will likely be created between the amateur and the professional game.
The proposed rule changes provide yet another reminder of how difficult it is for all governing bodies to protect players from injury (and themselves against negligence claims for failing to do the same) whilst keeping the players, spectators and other participants content.
Rugby Union has already had issues with player engagement since the Covid-19 outbreak and a number of amateur (and professional) clubs have struggled financially. It will be interesting to see what impact these rule changes have on participation levels, fan engagement and, most importantly, player safety in rugby. As to whether the changes will result in fewer concussions and fewer negligence claims, only time will tell.
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 Science and research consultant for World Rugby