English rugby at war over tackle height plans after humiliating RFU apology

Jonny May of England is tackled by Kurt-Lee Arendse of South Africa during the Autumn International match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on November 26, 2022 in London, England - GETTY IMAGES/Paul Harding
Jonny May of England is tackled by Kurt-Lee Arendse of South Africa during the Autumn International match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on November 26, 2022 in London, England - GETTY IMAGES/Paul Harding

The Rugby Football Union found itself at the centre of open warfare on Friday night as a farcical week ended with the governing body issuing a humiliating apology for causing “anger and concern” across the community game.

Despite acknowledging failures in engagement, and amid continuing calls for Bill Sweeney, the union’s chief executive, to resign, the RFU has resisted a U-turn on controversial tackle-height changes.

Fridays’ statement reiterated an intention to press ahead with lowering the legal tackle-height in the community game, with the apology including details of the medical evidence that was provided to RFU council members as an explanation for why lowering the “waist” has been seen as the most sensible limit in order to reduce the risk of injuries.

However, in another embarrassing development for the governing body it emerged that the 12 page document that formed the basis of the RFU's reasoning contained data that has not previously been published or peer reviewed.

There will now be a concerted effort from the union to consult with the players, coaches and referees over the wording of the rule-change, notably to explain that “waist” will refer to the navel rather than the hips, giving slightly more lee-way to tacklers than had been feared.

'We accept that the rugby community has concerns'

“The RFU board, council and executive staff apologise for the anger and concern that has been created among the rugby community by announcing the decision to lower the tackle height from next season,” read a remarkable statement from the RFU.

“In our desire to act quickly to reduce head impacts and concussions in the community game, which represents 99 per cent of the rugby playing population in England, we have upset many of you who are the champions, volunteers, and ambassadors of our game. We fully acknowledge we got the engagement wrong, and we are truly sorry.

“In making our decision we were aware that France have lowered the tackle height, New Zealand will be doing so and World Rugby supports this approach. We, like the French, used the term ‘waist and below’; this has caused misunderstanding and confusion.

“We would now like the game to help us define how we describe a lower tackle height to reflect what the research is telling us in a way that is understood by all. Consequently, the risk of head injuries should be reduced if tackling below that optimum height.

“We will now begin a series of forums and workshops with players, coaches, match officials and volunteers, to explain and develop the details of the domestic law variation.”

England's Ellis Genge (centre) is tackled by New Zealand's Ethan De Groot (left) during the Autumn International match - PA/Bradley Collyer
England's Ellis Genge (centre) is tackled by New Zealand's Ethan De Groot (left) during the Autumn International match - PA/Bradley Collyer

Council members held what was described as a “full and frank” discussion on Thursday night in an attempt to review the process by which the decision was made and “the timescales involved in making the decision”. Also on the agenda was the backlash from community clubs and the RFU’s communication of the decision, which was announced just eight days ago.

According to internal documents seen by Telegraph Sport, a further review will take place at the next RFU council meeting on Feb 13. It is understood that the RFU laws group and governance committee were to finalise “the precise wording of the law”, but it will now be brought back to full council, and go through consultation with clubs, as part of that process.

The statement added: “A large body of scientific evidence demonstrates the risk of head injury and concussion for players can be reduced by lowering the tackle height to prevent head-on-head contact.

“However, we also accept that the rugby community has other concerns that this change may bring and we need to listen, understand and respond to those concerns. We will start inviting players, coaches, match officials and volunteers to these forums from early next week, so that we can all work together.”

'Sweeney is no friend of the community game'

None of this fire-fighting has prevented calls for Sweeney to resign. The Community Clubs Union [CCU], an organisation campaigning for a vote of no confidence in the current chief executive, has now received the backing of around 280 clubs. The CCU is pressing ahead with its intention to force a special general meeting (SGM).

“Bill Sweeney has shown he is no friend of the community game and has seriously undervalued the strength of the community game,” said a CCU spokesperson on Friday. “We will push for his resignation or removal via the SGM.”

As well as triggering an SGM, the CCU also wants to rescind the vote on the tackle law and are aiming to garner the support of 20 councillors in order to do so.  In a statement on Friday evening, they outlined their plan to do so before next month’s council meeting, setting a deadline of February 1.

Meanwhile, the constituent body of the North Midlands is also understood to have decided to join Staffordshire in rescinding its vote in favour of the trial.

This vicious backlash compounds something of an annus horribilis for Sweeney. At the end of the 2022 Six Nations, the RFU was roundly criticised for issuing a statement that declared themselves pleased with England’s direction of travel under Jones despite losing three matches in the second successive Six Nations tournament.

Jones was then sacked in December, yet has been allowed to take up the role of head coach of Australia, leaving him in line to coach against England at the 2023 World Cup, because he did not sign a no-compete clause.

Elsewhere, in the professional club game, Sweeney appeared in front of a select committee for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in November following the financial collapse of both Worcester Warriors and Wasps.

There, he was accused of “living in isolation in your ivory tower”. Last month, Sweeney was asked whether he had considered his position, as he had been urged to by the DCMS select committee.

“I love this job,” Sweeney said. “It’s a privilege to do it. It’s quite demanding at times, we’ve spoken about 2022, and I believe I’ve got the full backing of the board. That’s not my decision to make, if somebody else thinks differently.”

Analysis: What data is the RFU using to recommend tackle height changes?

By Charles Richardson, Rugby Reporter

The Rugby Football Union in its apology statement on Friday appended a Powerpoint presentation which was presented to its council members as evidence when they were asked to vote on the ­lowering of the tackle height in the community game.

It has emerged, however, that some of the key data has yet to be published and there are doubts about some of its provenance.
“What does the science tell us?” was the name of the presentation, which kicked off by outlining why the tackle was the main focus of the RFU in trying to reduce head injury and concussion risk. Across all of the studies carried out by the RFU, the conclusion was that 60-75 per cent of concussions occur in the tackle, and across all studies – except, fittingly, men’s community rugby in England – the tackler was always at greater risk than the ball-carrier. In the men’s community game, the concussion incidence was equally split between the tackled and tackler.

The presentation then cites two published studies from 2017 – both involving Ross Tucker, a science and research consultant for World Rugby, and Simon Kemp, the RFU’s medical director – which conclude that the higher the contact on the ball-carrier and the closer the head proximity of players in relation to one another, the higher the likelihood of head injury and concussion risk. “Subsequent evaluations on under-twenties, elite women and two more recent cohorts of adult men have all generated the same findings,” the evidence states, without providing further details.

Parallels are then drawn with France, and a similar trial in its amateur game which, according to the findings, since 2019, saw a “decline in penalties for illegal tackles, a reduction in suspected concussions and positive changes in the shape of the game”. That latter point, of course, is nebulous and subjective.

After the valid findings of the French trial, the evidence is not quite as clear cut. The presentation asks “Why we think the navel is the optimal height?”, with an accompanying diagram of a ball-carrier split into sections: head and neck; shoulder and armpit; torso; upper leg; lower leg; unknown. The findings from two unknown studies are then presented to the council members: one which examined tackle heights from 10 games between levels five and nine in English community men’s rugby; and another which examined tackle heights from 16 games at under-18 schoolboy level.

It is understood that the data for these two trials was accrued by Bath University – but it was not published. There is also no reference to the provenance of this data in the RFU presentation, leaving councillors in the dark as to its origin.

Furthermore, the findings raise questions. The presentation claims that, across the 10 games in English community men’s rugby, there were 10 tackles in the head/neck area “per match”. In the 16 matches at under-18 schoolboy level, there were 11 tackles – per match – in the head/neck area. That is not a total; it is a “per match” figure which, presumably, would have resulted in a significant number of yellow and red cards at the respective fixtures.

In the ensuing slides, the presentation highlights a World Rugby study of 760 head injury assessments – without reference or footnote – and concludes that: “Head-to-head contact is the highest risk for the tackler compared to all other body parts. As a consequence, we can expect the head injury risk to reduce for the tackler [if the tackle height is lowered].”

The conclusion highlights why late dipping by the ball-carrier needs to be considered before concluding: “We believe that this proposed reduction in tackle height will reduce head injury and concussion risk … we need to be prepared to be patient.”