Tackle height set to be lowered across elite rugby
The legal tackle height is set to be lowered across all elite rugby globally, despite a growing revolt against plans to roll out the most seismic changes to the way the game is played since it turned professional.
The chief executive of World Rugby, Alan Gilpin, confirmed on Thursday it planned to follow the Rugby Football Union’s lead in rewriting its own rules on an issue that has left the sport bitterly divided.
But, in an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport, he also said the “likelihood” was that the legal tackle height in the international and professional club game, which currently lies at shoulder level, would not be lowered as far as the waist.
The RFU’s decision to ban tackling above the waistline in the community game in England provoked outrage but Gilpin gave it a ringing endorsement and said other countries were set to follow suit.
He also confirmed World Rugby was planning to stage a global law trial from Jan 1, initially at amateur level, with a decision yet to be made over whether that would involve a prohibition on tackles above the waist or the sternum.
Unlike the RFU law change, which takes effect from next season, any change to the legal tackle height at the top end of the sport would not be any earlier than the 2024-25 season and may not even be in place until after the 2027 World Cup.
Gilpin said: “Yes, we’re looking to make sure that we are implementing a lower tackle height across all parts of the game. How that’s actually implemented is slightly different in the community game to the elite game.”
He added: “You’re in a slightly different environment, for a number of reasons, in the elite part of the game, particularly at an international level, because the level of – for example – medical provision, diagnostic ability etc, is very different.
“We obviously have TMO [Television Match Officials], HIA [Head Injury Assessment], the ability for immediate pitch-side care in all of elite-level rugby that you don’t have in the community game. We’ve got to recognise that they’re not the same sport.”
The RFU has stood firm over its ban on tackles above the waist, which its council refused to consult the wider game on before voting for.
So fierce has been the backlash from those affected that Bill Sweeney, the governing body’s chief executive, and its board are in danger of facing a vote of no confidence.
But Gilpin defended the ban, which was announced amid the latest wave of legal action against World Rugby and the RFU by former players with dementia or other brain disorders.
He said: “The RFU obviously is in the process of implementing some changes around tackle height that we support. Because we know, from all of the research and science and medicine, that lowering the tackle height is a really important part of making the game safer.
“There’s a lot of work to do to educate people. But we’ve got to, as a sport, try to find that really difficult but hugely-important balance between safety but making the game entertaining to watch.
“It’s not binary. It’s not one or the other. It’s how do we make the game safer and a better spectacle to watch and a better game to play?
“It’s tough because it’s a really, really complex message to deliver. On one level, it’s very simple. We know from all the research that’s been done and is incredibly comprehensive, you’re four-and-a-half times more likely to sustain a head injury when you tackle from an upright position than when the tackler is bent at the waist.
“We need to get players tackling lower at every part of the game. Obviously, there’s an elite part of the game where we’re doing a huge amount of work and we’ve used sanctions, and red cards in particular, trying to drive changes in behaviour.
“When you look at the community game, it’s challenging to roll that out on a global basis.
“It requires significant buy-in from the game in different parts of the world.
“You’ll always have the traditionalists, I guess, who understandably say, ‘Stop tweaking things and don’t change too much, because we’re really concerned about losing the inherent fabric of the sport’ – and we all absolutely get that.
“At the same time, we’ve got to make sure that we are attracting people to the sport that is safe to play – or is as safe to play as a sport that’s a contact one can be.
“There’s always work to do in implementing change and how you can consult around change and how you communicate and educate around change. But the key message is let’s get the tackle height lower at every level of the game because that will reduce – absolutely reduce – the number of head injuries that we see in rugby. And that’s really important if, again, we’re going to win the battle for the hearts and minds of not just the young people we want to play the game, boys and girls, but the mums and dads who may be concerned about injuries in rugby.
“So, we’ve got a responsibility from a World Rugby perspective, to work hard with our member federations around the world.
“That communication challenge is tougher in places where rugby’s got a long heritage and history and is played in significant numbers, and that’s what the RFU is experiencing in this last week or so.”
Gilpin’s declaration comes as momentum is building towards a vote of no confidence in RFU chief executive Sweeney, with close to 250 clubs now in support of a special general meeting (SGM) in the wake of the governing body’s move to implement new tackle laws.
Community Clubs Union (CCU), an independent organisation launched in response to last week’s announcement, has spearheaded the campaign. They are hoping in the coming days to reach final sign-off on a letter requesting the SGM, which requires the support of at least 100 members of the union, and are coordinating the process of collecting letters from each dissenting club which must be signed by a chairperson and a secretary.
Analysis: Rugby's brave new world could cause unintended consequences
By Charlie Morgan, Senior Rugby Writer
The chief aim of World Rugby’s inevitable move to lower the legal tackle height in the elite game is to reduce the number of upright tackles and the frequency of head-on-head collisions between players.
Data shows that these events are most likely to cause concussions and global authorities evidently feel, with two legal actions taken out against governing bodies including the Rugby Football Union and World Rugby, as though the intervention is necessary because there is an acknowledgment that stricter sanctions are not having the desired outcome of decreasing the number of brain injuries.
If we accept that, then there is an obvious follow-up question: What will be the ripple effects of such a drastic change on the sport as a spectacle? As ever, both intended and unintended consequences have to be considered.
First, the obvious aspects. Rangy-limbed offloaders are certain to become more valuable. While he made a significant impact on the sport as a back-to-back World Cup-winner, ex-All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams will curse that he retired too early. Imagine how much havoc could be caused by an in-form Leone Nakarawa, the supremely dextrous Fiji lock, if defenders are not permitted above his sternum.
Upright wrap-tackles, often featuring multiple defenders and widely known as “choke tackles”, grew in popularity as a means of suffocating attacks and stopping opponents from releasing passes out of contact. It may still be possible to slow down opposition phase-play, and perhaps force a turnover by creating a maul, but surely much more difficult. Pick-and-go sequences, regarded by many as a blight on the game, could grow in influence. How does one stop them without standing tall?
With that in mind, then, how else will defences contest possession in open play? One has to think that the breakdown will increase in significance as a battleground – as if it were not ferocious and pivotal enough. Defenders arriving second to the contact area will often hold up a carrier under current laws. Will they now wait for the ball to hit the floor and flood into the ruck even more fiercely in hunched-over jackal positions? The worry is that the breakdown is already a mine-field for injuries and governed by idiosyncratic refereeing interpretations. This is unlikely to alter either of those things. Quite the opposite.
On both sides of the ball, the skill of support-running will be placed under greater scrutiny because, as well as offloads, there should be more onus on ruck-speed – with attackers aiming to blow past the ball and defenders bidding to scrap and spoil.
“We know the issues the breakdown is causing and a lot of people think that is worse than the tackle,” says Nick Easter, the former England back-row, who is now coaching at Chinnor after spells with Harlequins, Newcastle Falcons and Worcester Warriors. He is also wary of an avalanche of penalties bringing about more stoppages with “whistle-happy” officials exacerbating what is “already a difficult sport for the layman to understand”.
The changing face of the sport is, of course, little concern right now to Twickenham, at least not in the immediate future. RFU figureheads could well face a vote of no confidence due to their handling of the impending waist-height tackle trial. Besides the anger at the governing body’s aloof and vague communication, compounding the lack of consultation with community clubs and players, a major frustration sweeping across English rugby union is that the notion of ‘tackle-choice’ – essentially how a player picks from an arsenal of defensive tools depending on the match scenario – would seem to be nullified. Currently, there is an art in choosing which sort of tackle to use in any given situation.
The RFU have stressed that finer details are yet to be determined and World Rugby’s plans for the elite game are clearly at a far earlier stage. Interestingly, a trial at grassroots and junior levels in New Zealand, which is to be rolled out across the country more widely in 2023, required the first tackler to target below the sternum, around the belly. A second tackler could then come in as high as the shoulder line. It would seem as though this has addressed safety concerns and retained an element of ‘tackle-choice’.
Pace, passing and ball-in-play time were the intended outcomes of the 50:22 kicking law and implementation of a goal-line drop-out instead of a five-metre scrum. The sternum-height tackle will no doubt be pitched as a means to deliver these things as well. Rugby union should always reward powerful runners, muscular scrummagers and athletic jumpers, but it will be interesting to monitor any gradual changes in body composition among elite teams and across positions.
Passionate about retaining “the fabric of the game” as a pursuit for “all shapes and sizes where there is a contest for possession”, Easter would prioritise tackle technique and cap replacements in order to incite fatigue. The first is a necessity. In time, the second may also become part of this brave new world.