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Opinion

We're missing the point in the rugby player welfare debate

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Roar Guru
12th November, 2020
36

Rugby needs to strike a balance between player welfare and changing the fabric of the sport.

Unfortunately, right now the most important conversation relating to our game seems to be guided by emotion and trite attacks on opposing views.

Let me say straight out that player welfare should not be the only consideration in what should be a full blooded but respectful debate. It is a consideration, perhaps the dominant or major consideration. But nevertheless it is not the only one.

If player welfare is to be the be all and end all, why not make head gear compulsory and only allow tackles around the waist? Or better still, ban contact sport altogether?

What started as a sensible discussion about the effects of contact sport on the brain is morphing into something far more insidious. Mission creep at its most destructive.

Some of you may think the idea of rugby being banned or changed so fundamentally that it is no longer recognisable is alarmist and unrealistic. But there are many doctors and politicians who think otherwise.

This is not a partisan issue either. Phil Kearns and Tim Horan were adamant that sending players off is bad for rugby. Both John Kirwan and Christian Cullen made similar comments regarding the use of Red Cards in the immediate aftermath of the fourth Bledisloe on Saturday evening.

Yet 2020 does seem to be the year of polarised views and lack of compromise. All too often when speaking of ‘player welfare’ woke is met by ‘old school blood and guts’. Where is the in-between, the middle road?

Some would argue that rugby has already found a balance when it comes to dealing with high tackles and its approach is spot on. I disagree.

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Lachlan Swinton of the Wallabies is sent off

Lachlan Swinton. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Again, the debate in essence is no different to any others that balance risk.

We could drive at 90klm/h on highways and have fewer deaths from high speed collisions, but that may cause more deaths from driver fatigue. We could ban children from drinking any alcohol until the age of 18, but that may lead to binge drinking as young adults.

‘Blow back’ and unintended consequences are by-products of poorly thought out policies that have not been properly scrutinised and tested by open debate.

Surely, if commentators, administrators and players are truly interested in addressing ‘player welfare’, a proper discussion regarding high tackles and how to sanction them should not just be ‘allowed’ but actively encouraged.

This week we have seen the Foul Play Review Committee rub both Lachie Swinton and Ofa Tu’ungafasi for four and three weeks respectively. In effect, these bans rule them out until 2021.

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This author thinks both suspensions comical and a product of flawed processes, particularly Tu’ungafasi’s but also to a lesser extent Swinton’s.

The pivotal part of the judgments was as follows: “With respect to sanction… the act of foul play merited a mid-range entry point of six weeks due to the World Rugby instructions that dictate any incident involving contact with the head must start at the mid-range level.”

In other words, the referee, TMO, players and coaches as well as the actual Foul Play Review Committee itself may have thought the high tackles were low range but the committee had no discretion to apply a low range penalty.

Sam Cane shared clear (and I thought very fair) opinions about both tackles after the game that were favourable to the defendants. Yet the only mitigating factor taken into account was Swinton’s early guilty plea. The suspension of four weeks is of course debatable, some will think it ridiculously severe while others may think it too short.

That does not change the fact that something is very wrong with the process.

There are three key points that need to be considered in this argument.

Firstly, do the laws and the way they are applied affectively address player safety?

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If we accept that the vast majority of high tackles are not intentional but as a result of recklessness then we must take account of the role fatigue plays in decision making. Does reducing a side to 14 men for 50 minutes help fatigue and limit the possibility of reckless contact?

Caleb Clarke fends off two Wallabies players

Caleb Clarke (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

In addition, various studies have shown that 76per cent of injuries in rugby occur during tackles. Significantly however, most studies show that it is in fact the tackler (not the tackled) at most risk of head injury.

Trinity College in Dublin have published an extensive paper titled ‘Can tackle height influence head injury assessment in elite rugby union?’ which is far from straightforward in its conclusions. While it highlights the risk of going in chest high for tacklers (and the tackled), it also recommended against making contact with upper legs.

In a game played at high speed by giant people who are not machines, that kind of advice is almost impossible. Are we heading towards only tackles around the waist being permitted and if so, what are the implications for tacklers coming into contact with knees or hips?

Secondly, we must ask ourselves if it is just and fair to send players off for momentary lapses of timing and judgment?

In relation to Tuungafasi’s card, Justin Marshall commented that “Having played the game and understanding the contact areas, there is that tiny microsecond of intent and contact. The intent was never to hit him high.”

Surely, Marshall has hit the nail on the head. Intent must at least be a factor in all of this that is provided for in the laws and then in turn permitted to be considered by relevant committees and judiciaries.

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It’s also worth noting that as a result of Tuungafasi’s red card, another young player was removed from the field in order to facilitate contested scrums despite the fact he did nothing wrong.

Thirdly, the question must be asked; are there better ways of doing it?

Yes, of course there are. And we know this because other contact sports do it better.

Officials in the NFL have discretion on-field to either penalise or eject a player. Failing to eject a player does not mean he can’t be sanctioned later on.

Rugby league categorises high tackles as intentional, reckless or careless and treats them accordingly. The judiciary has discretion.

And to those of you who say ‘well this isn’t league’ or ‘if you don’t like union don’t watch it’. Codes that are thriving can just about get away with such trite, unintelligent and unhelpful contributions. rugby union is not one of them.

For all the criticism of him, Nick Berry didn’t have a choice with either Red Card on Saturday. That is wrong in itself. But it should also be the case that for all but the worst offences, a yellow card will suffice.

Both Swinton and Tu’ungafasi should have immediately received yellow cards, spent ten minutes on the side line and been put on report.

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The judiciary process is also broken. It should be dominated by ex-players. For example, the panel for Rugby Championship games could include a recently retired Wallaby, Puma, Springbok and All Black with a chairman sourced from the legal profession acting as a fifth and deciding voice if necessary.

The panel should be permitted to assess an incident in the whole. How high was it? Was an attempt made to use an arm? What about timing? Did someone slip? Was it bad luck or down right spiteful?

Such a process would be far more respected and better received than the nonsense we have now. Most importantly, it would be rugby players being judged by their peers.

Some may say that you can’t trust players to safe guard their own interests. I believe the opposite, it is up to them to set standards and expectations. If this debate is truly about them, what is the problem with giving them a bigger say in it?

Players are the custodians of the game not scientists, lawyers and administrators sipping champagne in the corporate boxes.