World Rugby asked to consider reducing legal tackle height as number of concussions increase again
World Rugby has been asked to consider reducing the height of the tackle in an eight-point action plan devised by the English game in response to another concerning report showing the brutal toll of injuries at professional level.
The Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project for the 2016-17 season, commissioned jointly by the RFU, the Rugby Players’ Association and Premiership Rugby Limited, reported on Monday that injuries suffered in matches had risen slightly in both number and severity.
And while there were concerns over injuries in training and on artificial grass pitches it was again the worry over concussion which dominated as it was the most common match injury for the sixth season running.
The rate rose by almost a third, from 15.8 concussions suffered per 1000 hours of playing time in 2015-16, to 20.9 per 1000 hours the following season. It also accounted for 22 per cent of all match injuries, including 43 per cent of all injuries to tacklers.
Increased tackle sanctions were introduced by World Rugby on January 1 2017 in a bid to protect players, and while the Professional Game Board will scrutinise refereeing in England to see if those measures are being properly policed they have also recommended further measures be taken to lower the height of the tackle.
“Put simply, we need to avoid head-to-head contact, head-to-knee contact and head-to-hip contact,” said Simon Kemp, the RFU’s medical services director. “The way we do that is by looking for the tackler to make contact with the ball-carrier between their waist and the line of their shoulders.
“You can drive that change in two ways – either by changing the legal height of the tackle or by changing player behaviour by increasing the sanction of tackles that result in contact with the head.
“What we saw last year was a World Rugby directive that increased the sanction for the height of the tackle. We would like World Rugby to give consideration to reducing the legal height of the tackle from below the line of the shoulders, because there as it is currently configured, the margin for error is very small.”
And Nigel Melville, the RFU’s professional rugby director, suggested that there was currently some discrepancy between how those incidents were being judged at Test level, where “referees come across competitions from different hemispheres”.
Indeed, Kemp mentioned the head clash between Ireland centre Bundee Aki and England wing Elliot Daly during the NatWest Six Nations contest at Twickenham earlier this month. Australian referee Angus Gardner ruled that Aki’s challenge only merited a penalty.
He added: “I think the broader piece here is where we think the change in sanction, which we’ve seen, will be enough or whether consideration needs to be given to the change in height of the tackle as well.
“We saw with the Bundee Aki tackle that there are very limited margins for error with the permitted height of the tackle at the line of the shoulders.”
Kemp also highlighted that “the number of tackles and ball-carrying episodes have gone up by about 10 per cent a season” and that the RFU was working with World Rugby’s analysis department to monitor the consequences of other law amendments.
Training injuries and player load have been criticised in England following suggestions of fatigue in Eddie Jones’ camp during the Six Nations campaign. Premiership Rugby’s rugby director Phil Winstanley admitted that finding the “optimal exposure to contact” remained a work in progress.
“Some American football leagues have taken contact out of training,” Kemp said. “But we think from the evidence in rugby that there is a minimum amount of contact you need to do to be robust enough to play games at the weekend.
“It’s about managing it in four-week blocks and on an individual basis but this happens on a day-to-day basis with the clubs and England.”