Welsh Rugby Union considers change to tackle height to protect players from head injuries

The Welsh Rugby Union has confirmed it is considering changing the rules of tackling in the community game from next season.

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) in England has recently come under fire for announcing a dramatic move to limit the height of tackles to the "waist and down" from July, but have since appeared to suggest the move was open to consultation.

Asked on Friday (February 3) if similar decisions were possible in Wales, a WRU spokesperson told ITV Cymru Wales: “We are in active dialogue with the Irish, Scottish and English Unions and can confirm we are all considering a similar move in our domestic game ahead of season 2023/24, although no decision has currently been taken.”

The WRU then added to their statement with further detail on the discussions at lunchtime on Friday.

WRU Community Game Board chair John Manders said the four home nations had met in January with representatives of World Rugby. Since then, Mr Manders said the WRU Community Board met to discuss tackle height.

"We will be creating a ‘task and finish’ group to look at the issue of tackle height", Manders said in a statement.

"This group will make sure that we consult and liaise with all our key stakeholders, players, coaches, referees and anyone associated with the community game. The group will also make sure we link closely with World Rugby and examine all evidence, before we make a decision".

The WRU says it aims to make a decision by early May, in order to "give time to everyone to adapt and prepare, if necessary".

“The key part is whatever we decide we must consult first and look at all the evidence", the statement finished.

Any changes to the game will be controversial, but the discussions over the future of the game come as decision makers try to assess the implications of studies looking at the damage to the brain caused by repeated head injuries.

Former Wales international Alix Popham was diagnosed with early onset dementia aged 40.

Former Wales international and Grand Slam winner Alix Popham was diagnosed with early onset dementia during the pandemic, when he was aged just 40.

His charity, Head for Change, supports people like him who are suffering the effects of a career of intense professional rugby.

"They worked out it was from the over 100,000 sub-concussive hits during my career and 90% of those were done in training", Popham told me, "As a sport that's something we can control.

In January, the RFU Council in England agreed to lower the height of the tackle across the community game from 1st July 2023.

In a statement, the RFU said: "Designed to improve player safety and informed by data, this change aims to reduce head impact exposure and concussion risk in the tackle for both the ball carrier and tackler.

"Evidence from studies has consistently demonstrated that higher contact on the ball carrier and closer proximity of the ball carrier and tacklers’ heads are associated with larger head impacts (as measured by smart mouthguards) and an increased risk of concussion".

But the announcement was met with criticism by players and coaches from grassroots to the professional game, with many saying the definition of "waist and down" would create more dangers for players - for example from head collisions with knees and hips.

Alix says the move announced in England last week would be a "positive change", but argued further changes need to be considered about other parts of the game too, for example in a ruck situation.

"At the moment someone can be jackling the ball, and somebody take a 15 metre run up and clean them out. That's like having a car stuck on the hard shoulder and being smashed from behind over and over again.

"That would be happening multiple times in training in order to get good at it, and these are the things we can control: the amount of contact players do in training".

Alix Popham and others are about to embark on a cycle challenge from Cardiff to Edinburgh starting on Monday, to raise money for his charity, Head for Change.

Pupils at Langstone Primary School near Newport had Alix as a special guest in assembly this week as he talked about his career and his campaign to make rugby safer for everyone.