Tackling in rugby: I have no doubt that this law change is worth trying

Six Nations training squads and the last round of this stage of the European Cups seemed likely to be this week’s topics. However two announcements relating to the amateur game – one from the SRU, the other from the RFU – invite some comment.

Edinburgh's Jamie Ritchie and Tom Cruse tackle Glasgow Warriors' Lewis Bean during a BKT United Rugby Championship match between Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors at BT Murrayfield.
Edinburgh's Jamie Ritchie and Tom Cruse tackle Glasgow Warriors' Lewis Bean during a BKT United Rugby Championship match between Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors at BT Murrayfield.

Remarkably, the SRU’s is welcome: this is the restoration of the old District Championship. All the more so because the team from the Borders will have its old name, South of Scotland, spoken of simply as The South. In the last years before professionalism, the Districts matches were fiercely competitive and well-attended. Attendances are likely to be lower when the tournament returns in May, but the right to represent your district will surely still be highly valued.

The RFU announcement is more significant and will provoke fierce argument, is indeed already doing so on social media. Putting it simply, any tackle above the waist will be illegal. A similar law has been applied in the lower reaches of the game in France, and it is claimed that the number of head injuries has fallen by some 60 per cent. It seems likely that if the law change in England is deemed successful, World Rugby will introduce a similar, not necessarily identical, law.

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Obviously the game has to be made safer, the number of concussions greatly reduced, if rugby union is to have a happy future. There are plenty of parents already, some of whom played and enjoyed school and club rugby for years, who are unwilling to allow their sons and daughters to play the game

Some who support the move look forward to a game that is more entertaining as well as safer. There will be more off-loads (passes out of the tackle), something that high tackling with the tackler going for the ball as well as the man is designed to prevent. The likelihood of offloads will demand a different defensive structure, probably with two lines of defence rather than the now long-fashionable single line spread right across the field. Since defence is easier to coach than attack, I’ve no doubt that intelligent coaches will seek, and probably find, a way to stifle attacking play. All law changes, however intelligent and well-intended, are subject to another inexorable law: the law of unintended consequences.

One thing I’ll be happy to see go is the choke tackle in which two players, one on either side of the ball-carrier, seek to hold him up, thus winning the put-in to the scrum which follows from the ball being deemed unplayable. The choke tackle often leads to a clash of heads, but might be eliminated by a change in the law relating to a put-in at the scrum.

Those on social media who are outraged by the RFU’s announcement claim that tackling round the knees or hip can be equally dangerous, resulting in concussions if the tackle is mistimed. Well, this is undeniable. I can recall getting a boot in the face, probably my own fault for going in too timidly. No law can prevent that sort of thing. That said, application of a low-tackling law should eliminate a clash of heads.

One of the problems today is of very powerful players approaching the tackler-in-waiting with head lowered almost to knee-level. Such a ball-carrier is rarely in a position when he can off-load, and has indeed no interest in doing so. The purpose if tackled is to facilitate another pick-and-go. If the ball isn’t available for that there will be a jackler to be knocked brutally backwards, his head in danger.

The experiment will be watched with interest, but can’t for long be confined to the amateur game. If it was it would make any transition from school, university and club rugby to the professional game very difficult.

So there are lots of questions as indeed there are, or should be, when any fundamental change to the Laws is suggested. I have no doubt however that this law change is worth trying. The game has become too dangerous and we now know much more about the incidence of serious head injuries than we used to. Any contact sport carries danger, just as mountaineering, horse-riding and motor sports are dangerous. But it’s the duty of legislators to frame laws in such a way as to make serious injury – in this case to the head – less likely.