Allan Massie: Urgent law change required over big hits

Finn Russell: Concussion. Picture: SNS
Finn Russell: Concussion. Picture: SNS
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At some point, preferably soon, the laws of rugby must be revised. The professional game is becoming too dangerous. The way it is played is imitated in the amateur game and, most worryingly, in school and youth rugby. It’s merely a symptom but the regular use of the word “hit” instead of “tackle” says a lot. The good thing is that the authorities are already worried. As the instruction to referees to identify and penalise the “neck roll” shows. The bad thing is that they don’t seem to be worried enough.

I don’t think I’ve seen a professional game this year in which at least one player hasn’t had to be taken off the field for a head-injury assessment. More often than not he doesn’t return and then has to undergo post-concussion return to play protocol. Obviously, in one sense, this is welcome. Cases of concussion are being taken seriously. One must also acknowledge that the evident increase in the number of concussion cases may reflect greater awareness of the danger. We all know that, in the past, a concussed player might remain on the field playing quite effectively on auto-pilot without actually being aware of what he was doing, ignorant of the score and afterwards unable to remember anything.

Yet few doubt that concussion is more common than it used to be, and while it is true that some concussions, like the one suffered by Finn Russell in the French match a few weeks ago, result from a simple and unavoidable accident, others are the consequence of the greater physicality and violence of the modern game. This needs to be controlled.

Revision of the tackle law is desirable. The vogue for the high “choke” tackle is dangerous. It results often in a clash of heads. The chest-high “hit” may be exciting, but it is too dangerous. Any tackle above the level of the waist should be illegal, with, perhaps, the exception of the old-fashioned smother tackle made in pursuit of the ball-carrier.

It is not, however, only the tackler who engages in dangerous practices. The fashion for taking the ball into the tackle, head-on, with the ball-carrier’s head lower than his hips, invites a head-clash and should therefore be banned.

Some laws don’t need to be revised, merely enforced. “Taking out” opposition players
at the side of a ruck or maul is illegal but rarely punished. Yet it is obviously dangerous. Referees are now alert to the danger of tackling, or even merely interfering with, a man leaping to take a high ball, either in the line-out or in receiving or pursuing a kick, but not to the danger of tackling-hitting a player who is not in possession, often not even likely to be in possession.

The laws relating to what happens at the tackle-point remain profoundly unsatisfactory and potentially dangerous. The player arching over the tackled player in an attempt to effect a turnover is in a dangerous position when opponents try to drive him backwards and off the ball. The worst law change made was the one which removed the requirement that the ball be played with the foot after a tackle, before any player on either side could handle it again. But a reversion to the old law is probably too much to hope for.

The set scrum remains unsatisfactory, though it at least is less dangerous than it was a couple of years ago, since the “hit” on engagement was outlawed. Nevertheless, much as we applauded the sterling efforts of Alistair Dickinson, Ross Ford and Willem Nel in the Six Nations, the scrum hsd become an absurdity. It was intended to be a means of getting the ball back into play after a minor technical offence, not as a way of winning a penalty. We have arrived at a ridiculous position: if a player on a team with the weaker scrum knocks-on the ball in his own half, this little mistake is likely to cost his side three points at least – or more if the kick is put into touch to secure a five-metre line-out. This is a harsh punishment for dropping a pass or losing the ball in the tackle.

Some would get rid of scrum penalties, replacing them by free kicks. But this would only encourage illegalities. A better response might be an experiment with seven-man scrums, removing the No 8, so making it more difficult to keep the ball in the scrum and the shove on.

Finally – and again nothing to do with danger – the time taken by place-kickers has become excessive. Referees should be strict about this. Alternatively – and perhaps preferably – let the 15-a-side game imitate Sevens and get rid of the place-kick altogether. It doesn’t take long to attempt a drop at goal and we would be spared the wait for someone to bring on a 
kicking–tee and then Dan Biggar’s ridiculous twitching preparation.