Thursday 27 June 2019

Neil Francis: The two-man tackle has to be outlawed to prevent concussions

Eifion Lewis Roberts (L) and Tommy Taylor of Sale Sharks tackle Lawrence Pearce of Leicester Tigers during the Aviva Premiership match between Sale Sharks and Leicester Tigers at the AJ Bell Stadium yesterday
Eifion Lewis Roberts (L) and Tommy Taylor of Sale Sharks tackle Lawrence Pearce of Leicester Tigers during the Aviva Premiership match between Sale Sharks and Leicester Tigers at the AJ Bell Stadium yesterday
Jonathan Sexton is tackled by Tim Swinson: ‘All tackles should be below arm pit/nipple area, so no possibility of head to head contact’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

We learn as we get older that we in the western world have no leaders worthy of the name. Clever people with insight and vision who can act decisively when appropriate. A stand-out individual imbued with bravery, principle and conviction.

Yet again I have to borrow from other fields or disciplines to illustrate a point. This piece reflects what goes on in the rugby world.

When the Charlie Hebdo and Paris atrocities were visited upon the western world our leaders . . . well what did they do? They issued condemnations from carefully prepared scripts penned by their handlers. They expressed solidarity and assured us that 'no stone would be left unturned' until the perpetrators of these crimes were caught. The truth is that finding and jailing these unwitting patsies for their crimes solves nothing.

There are political attendances at candle-lit vigils, mingling with the people at mass demonstrations, more condemnations, doleful silences at funerals, mumblings about solidarity and then nothing.

The bombs go off in Brussels. Condemnations, solidarity, no stone unturned, candle-lit vigils, grief-stricken funerals and more condemnations. Nothing. Next month, same circus different country. The west, by acting as it does, perpetuates the actions of the lunatics.

What it does more than anything else, though, is highlight the void in responsible and active leadership in our world. It is true - nobody is ever safe in our world. Nobody can guarantee our liberty or freedoms. Nobody can safeguard against what is happening, but what you can do is act to protect your constituents to the very best of your ability - to not do this is to fail the people you purport to represent and protect.

Surely some government group could, within one week, draw up a 100-point programme which would ensure that its citizens would have better security and protection than it did a month ago. When those are implemented within a time-frame, draw up another 100 executive actions to further insulate the citizens of the western world from what is going on. Surely? No?

Condemnations? Is that all we get?

One of my heroes, the outspoken and brilliant economist Kenneth Galbraith, said: "All of the great leaders have one characteristic in common. It was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This and not much else is the essence of leadership."

I'm never sure that an economist, however outspoken or brilliant, would make a great leader. They are, though, pretty good at identifying what makes one.

And so we come to assess our rugby leaders. I have come to the conclusion that the game of rugby union is always in crisis. I go to bed some nights convinced that the next morning the game will be dead and I'll never see another botched TMO decision or an unpunished clothesline tackle in front of the referee again. The next day is refreshingly reassuring - the game is still alive. Well, there is always another crisis on the horizon but that too will be overcome.

I have always thought of World Rugby (formerly IRB), the 'governing body' of rugby, as a kind of giant jellyfish. It never really does anything, drifts from ocean to ocean, tentacles dragging behind. When the sea is calm it does nothing and when the sea is stormy it does nothing either.

The Six Nations is over and all I can think of is Accrington Stanley. The players may say that it is getting more and more competitive - that I suppose means that you have to be fitter, stronger and bigger to compete - not faster, smarter and more skilful.

For the last few years rugby has been facing its ISIS and just like our political leaders when we need thoughtful, decisive and skilful leadership we get meandering ambivalence and mumbling.

We know that World Rugby takes concussion seriously, or at least their lawyers do, because they have tried to insulate themselves from coming class actions by posting missives on websites and holding pretty meaningless conferences on concussion and player welfare.

'Putting players first' is the key post on World Rugby's website. It is noticeable that on nearly every major rugby nation's website there is a concussion link on the homepage. That is unique in a major sport. There is no other sporting body - contact or non-contact - that draws the viewers' attention to the dangers of concussion in their own sport.

Our problem here is that all the information, all the knowledge and focus, is based on what happens after the fact. How to recognise and treat concussion. What to do when you have been diagnosed. HIAs.

From a terrorism perspective do you want to stop, neutralise or limit the bombers or do you, after the fact, want to catch the culprits and bring them to justice? One hundred per cent of the people will tell you that the former is the preferred course of action. How difficult can it be? Well, with strong political will and clever leadership you can make a very decent start.

The rugby governing body have a far easier task to try to stop players becoming concussed rather than treating them after it has happened. Both issues on a relative scale are a matter of life and death.

Instead of what I mentioned on the terrorism front about a 100-point programme, what if World Rugby had, say, even a 10-point programme. Ten changes in the laws that would safeguard our players more effectively. Not only would they safeguard our players but it would make the game more entertaining.

The tackle is the area where most concussions occur. Common sense dictates that:

• The high/low tackle by two players on one ball carrier be banned.

• One ball carrier, one tackler.

• As a consequence no truck and trailer drives or pick and goes so that two players don't overpower one tackler.

• No standing tall wrap tackles where the tackler's head collides with the ball carrier (a Jamie Roberts Special).

• No tackler allowed lead with the head even if he does eventually wrap his arms around the body.

• All tackles below arm pit/nipple area, so no possibility of head-to-head contact

• No ball carrier is allowed lead with his head into contact.

• Straight reds for all dangerous head high or concussion-inducing tackles whether accidental or intentional.

There are no nanny-state restrictions here. You can still pick up a concussion by going low with a knee to the head. It is, after all, a contact sport. It is one of the reasons why we play it.

Players might actually try to beat a man as opposed to ploughing into him knowing that only one man is going to tackle him. The opportunity for the offload is far higher as well. The two-man tackle has to be outlawed, it will make the game safer and far more entertaining.

World Rugby have a few law changes coming down the line but none are geared towards making the tackle safer for players. They have brought in a new maul law which will make it easier to stop a maul and thereby let more forwards drift into the massed ranks of defenders in the outfield.

The members on the council and executive committee are reasonably intelligent men but I can't believe that they have not had the balls to address this issue or begin to do something on a practical or realistic level.

King Jellyfish Bernard Lapasset retires and another floater, Bill Beaumont, takes over. A task force? A standing committee? Even a token gesture? Anything? Another Six Nations Championship goes by with more concussions and the only peep out of World Rugby is that they want to talk to Joe Marler about what he said to Samson Lee.

This piece, just in case there is any ambiguity, is about the grievous lack of authority and leadership in almost every sphere of importance in our society. As the poet said, "the hottest seats in Hell."

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