A RFU-led trial aimed at making rugby a safer sport has been abandoned because it was actually making the game more dangerous.
The initiative trialled in the new Championship Cup lowered the legal tackle height and it was hoped that the change would reduce the incidence of concussion and other serious injuries.
But an analysis of data after six rounds of matches, 36 in all, shows that while it has improved safety in one area, in another part of the game the players were more at risk of injury as a result of the new rule.
Only this month the RFU published figures from last season which showed the severity of injuries was on the increase. The most common was concussion, accounting for 20 per cent.
Interim RFU Chief Executive Nigel Melville said tonight “This was always a trial and we weren’t sure what the outcomes would be. Overall this has been an extremely valuable exercise. We’ve learnt a lot and tested an approach to reducing the risk of concussion in a real-life setting.”
The study in the Championship Cup did succeed in one respect, it significantly reduced the height of tackles. So much so that tackles in which there was contact with the head of the ball-carrier dropped by more than 40 per cent.
However, while in open play injuries involving an upright ball-carrier decreased, where a tackler and ball-carrier were both bent at the waist, incidents of concussion increased. That usually happened in close quarter contact, an area of the modern game that is becoming increasingly common.
Very often in those passages of play a ball-carrier supported by a teammate is hit, perfectly legally, by more than one opposition player.
Dr Simon Kemp, English Rugby’s head of medicine, says the game has no choice but to act “Rugby needs to be innovative, imaginative and it has to be both safety-focused and evidence based.”
He adds that everyone involved in the game needs to be on board, including those at the sharp end “Players find attempts to police the tackle height and the inconsistency of application (by referees) very frustrating.” It’s not just about the laws, it’s how they are interpreted in practice.
So, what can rugby learn from this evidence, bearing in mind this trial only set out to address two of the six major factors that lead to serious injury?
Potentially a radical overhaul of the laws is necessary if the sport is to take its safety responsibilities seriously. If it agrees that this RFU experiment has revealed a specific risk area, then it needs to eradicate it.
And World Rugby will inevitably have to do that in the face of criticism from traditionalists who are instinctively opposed to meddling.
Rugby should address specifically why the game has developed in the way it has. Why are there so many moves which see players deliberately crashing into each other close to the breakdown?
If the answer to that is because it’s the only way to make space elsewhere on the pitch, then maybe the law-makers need to look at other ways to create that space.
Or do they look at banning more than a one-on-one contest at the tackle? Or both?
“Rugby needs to do this quickly” says Kemp “The best opportunity is right after the World Cup and we need more trials that are not restricted to just the height of the tackle.”
The unintended consequence of the trial will provide vital research for World Rugby when it stages an emergency medical summit in France in March, looking at what the game needs to do to protect those who play it.
The challenge ahead is not an easy one – the future requires a sport with fewer contacts, fewer tackles and where tackles do occur, they need to be from the lowest risk group; while all the time rugby must remain recognisably the same game.
But above everything else to protect the players and by extension, the game itself, we’re at a stage where compromise is no longer an option.