Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening Post
“The game’s gone soft…” – this oft repeated phrase has been doing the rounds in rugby circles for a while but it has been heard more and more in recent weeks.
Over the last couple of weeks’ players, coaches and supporters have shown their displeasure at the new high tackle laws that are due to come into effect in January – but in reality are already being applied by referees.
So what is changing? Essentially the laws have been tightened so that players making contact with an opponent’s head in “reckless tackles” will receive a yellow card at least.
Taking that on a stage, players will also be punished even if the tackle starts below the shoulders but results in contact with the head being made in the final result.
If head contact is accidental – for example, if a ball-carrier slips into a tackle – a penalty will be awarded.
As a result, a number of players have been sin-binned in games with a number of high profile coaches warning that the officiating of high tackles is becoming a bit of a joke.
I must admit I have watched games where incidents have occurred that have led to players either being penalised or sin-binned and my initial reaction has been that the decision was a bit over the top.
But then I have reminded myself why this approach is much needed and is long overdue.
Quite simply, the game of rugby union has a serious problem with concussion.
As players have got physically bigger and the contact area more brutal – let’s not forget this is a sport where coaches now measure the G-Force ratings of players to assess how hard they are hitting opposition players in the contact areas – then is should come as no surprise that concussion has been the most commonly reported injury in the sport for a number of seasons.
When you then consider that 76% of reported concussions suffered by players last season were the result of being on the receiving end of a high or dangerous tackle then you can see the need for action.
Far too many players are being forced into early retirement through concussion.
A quick internet search reveals the names of dozens of players that have been forced out the game as a result of this.
It is reaching almost epidemic levels.
Add in the high profile concussion management issues surrounding players such as George North and Jonny Sexton and whilst the moves made to protect player welfare are going in the right direction, those moves have not gone far enough or been introduced quickly enough.
Some of the expert comment about this subject makes for sober reading.
A quote from Dr William Stewart - a renowned consultant neuropathologist – made a pretty blunt assessment of the situation when he said:
“We can’t be sure exactly how repeated concussions affect the brain over the long term, more importantly, who might most be at risk of long term damage.
“What we can say is that these injuries need to be taken seriously.
“Shoulders can be rebuilt; hips can be replaced but if you damage your brain you can’t get it back”.
Already we are hearing of the first wave of retired professional players showing symptoms of brain related illnesses such as early onset dementia.
So whilst treatment protocols such as Head Injury Assessment and Return to Play are welcome as a reaction to incidents, a proactive approach to the reduction of injury causing incidents is vital.
A change in culture of the sport is now essential and the new tackle protocols are the start of that.
World Rugby says the new rules, which come into effect on January 3, 2017 “aim to change culture in the sport to ensure that the head is a no-go area”.
Essentially players must understand their duty of care to their fellow players.
It can be achieved and it can be a positive for the game.
One of the positives of modern rugby culture has been the end of free-for-all fist fights that were an almost accepted feature of the game in the 1970s and 1980s.
Tougher punishments and the realistic threat of legal action soon put an end to that.
Players quickly realised they could no longer have a stand-up fight, cause damage and then wander off the pitch at the end of the match as if nothing had happened.
Whilst there is a world of difference between the malicious intent involved in throwing a punch and the dangerous execution of poorly timed tackle, the basic premise of player responsibility is the same.
So whilst the new tackle laws might currently be seen as sanitising the sport, they are designed to ensure that players understand their responsibilities towards their fellow players when they cross the whitewash.
To my mind World Rugby should also be looking to further police the breakdown where the likelihood of injury is also high – and it should do so soon.
There will be a period of settling down and tweaks to the new laws but in the end this is a vital move for the sport.
Rugby is a wonderful sport where the benefits to those that play remain numerous.
Get this important area right and those benefits will be enhanced and more importantly remembered by those who play the sport long after they’ve retired – hopefully having done so on their own terms.