Injury prevention underpins new cycle of rugby law amendments

Scotland winger Sean Maitland hands off England's Henry Slade. Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
Scotland winger Sean Maitland hands off England's Henry Slade. Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
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It was JPR Williams who suggested it, a quarter of a century ago. Rugby union will one day need to remove two players from the field, the great Wales full-back said, or it will run out of space. In 2019, that sanction remains off the table, but World Rugby have acceded to an alarming injury rate with a new mission statement underpinning its latest conference to look at improvements to the laws, held over three days near Paris this week: “The future shape of rugby will be determined by evidence-based injury-prevention initiatives“.

If the motto is clinical, it fits the widespread anxiety over the rate of injuries including concussion, prompted by evidence from four players at various levels in France losing their lives in the last 12 months, to the severity of injury rising in the professional game. It is not unusual when you see Northampton missing 11 players for tonight’s Premiership derby with Leicester.

The eight proposals formulated at the conference for possible trials in the next cycle of law amendments, which begins after this year’s World Cup, has excited plenty of debate.

One included a review of a yellow-card offence while the player was spending 10 minutes in the sinbin, to consider an upgrade to red. Another was to continue an existing experiment with issuing a post-match warning to a defender whose upright tackle had resulted in head contact. The greatest focus is on statistics showing the tackle accounts for 50 per cent of match injuries, and for 76 per cent of concussions, while 72 per cent of concussions sustained in the tackle occur to the tackler.

One idea that has immediately got players, coaches and pundits talking was a “50-22 kick”, inspired by rugby league’s 40-20 rule. A team whose player kicked the ball into touch in the opposition 22 from inside his or her own half, with a bounce before the ball went out, would be awarded the throw-in to the resulting lineout – in what would become a great attacking position. The theory is the fear of being driven back like this would persuade the defending team to take one or more players out of the defensive line which is often strung out in front of their opponents’ attack, so there would be more space and fewer damaging 
collisions.

The 40-20 rule in league generates excitement when the crowd sees the kick unleashed, and watch the defender scurrying madly to prevent the ball going out. There was just such an instance at Twickenham last Saturday, when Scotland’s Sean Maitland kicked on the counter although, of course, under the current laws, England had the subsequent throw-in.

Toby Flood, the Newcastle and England stand-off, said: “Is that more attractive to the viewer, or is it 1970s rugby stuff – whack the ball and go after it?

“Hypothetically, will a team like Exeter, who play a lot, now play less around their opponents’ 30 or 40-metre point, taking fewer risks, because they are worried about a kick going back behind them? There could be more ball in play, and fewer tackles, but less attractive play,

“I totally understand what they [the lawmakers] are trying to do, but I don’t know how much you can fight the evolution of the sport. People are bigger, faster and stronger than they were.”