Complexities surround lower tackle heights
AS rugby wrestles with the thorny issue of lowering legal tackle heights, a couple of key figures in the New Zealand game have weighed in with calls to proceed with caution.
Just how low you are going to need to go to make a legal hit in the game has become a hot topic since England’s Rugby Football Union announced it was set to lower to the waist the permissible tackle height at the community level of the game. It provoked a massive outcry from stakeholders who claimed they had not been consulted and led to a petition demanding heads roll at the top of the English game.
This followed an announcement that the tackle height in New Zealand’s community game will be lowered to below the sternum in 2023 in a move applying to First XV schools rugby and senior premier club grades.
Both communitylevel initiatives by the RFU and NZ Rugby are part of considered moves to make the game safer and lower the incidence of head injuries which have become a blight on the sport.
World Rugby, the sport’s global governing body, further muddied the waters by first supporting the RFU’s waist-high initiative, then hinting strongly at a similar move at the professional level of the game, and finally appearing to backtrack on those comments just days later.
In an interview with the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin initially suggested his organisation was set to follow suit at the elite level. ‘‘Yes, we’re looking to make sure that we are implementing a lower tackle height across all parts of the game,’’ he said.
But he appeared to backtrack on that when he told reporters at last weekend’s Sydney Sevens: ‘‘I don’t think it’s inevitable. Players are already understanding they need to lower the tackle height at the elite level of the game in order to reduce head contact. Whether we need to make rule change to drive that, I think is an area we’re working pretty hard to understand.
‘‘Lowering the tackle height is a priority in the community part of the game to make the game safer for players playing at all ages and grades. At the elite level, we’re
using a different approach to try and drive behavioural change.’’
Blues coach Leon MacDonald and his skipper, Dalton Papali’i were less than equivocal about the need to lower tackle heights at the top level.
‘‘It’s not here, so we’ll watch with interest,’’ said MacDonald who had a few issues with concussion during his playing career. ‘‘. . . It feels contrary to the essence of the game a little bit. I understand why it’s a big move though. It will change the game completely.
‘‘I don’t know if the game needs big overhauls right now. It feels like we’re trying to consolidate a product and give players and fans a bit of continuity, so it will be interesting to see how it goes.’’
Asked if change was inevitable at a time when former players were planning and initiating legal proceedings against governing bodies for long-term head problems suffered through rugby, MacDonald, a 56-test All Black, said: ‘‘What I’d love to see is the evidence behind it. I had some concussions and a lot of mine were from when I did go low. I’d like to see the numbers on that and see trials and numbers come out to show it’s either working or not.’’
Papali’i, always near the top of the tackle counts for his teams, expressed similar doubt about the waist-high initiative.
’’It’s a gladiator sport out there, the boys are getting head knocks and it’s putting players out of jobs because of how physical the game is going. I see their point around trying to make the game safer.
‘‘But you’ve got to find that line between making it safe and making rugby what rugby is. It’s a physical game, and you’ve got to accept it. I think they’re still trying to find that line.’’
Super Rugby Pacific will be played under current rules that take a hardline stance against any contact above the shoulder.
‘I had some concussions and a lot of mine were from when I did go low.’ LEON MACDONALD