In a watershed moment for the game, the Rugby Football Union will ban tackles above the waist for all rugby union matches below the elite level from July 1.
A unanimous vote from the RFU on Monday saw the drastic changes implemented, with the governing body intent on reducing “head impact exposure and concussion risk”.
The changes will apply across the community game in clubs, schools, colleges and universities, as well as in the women’s game and Championship one and below.
Nigel Gillingham, the RFU president, said: “Evidence from our own research and from around the world clearly shows that lowering the tackle height will reduce head impact exposure and the risk of concussion.
“The tackle will remain the primary method of stopping the ball-carrier using safe techniques that are taught from an early age.”
The RFU based its decision based on data gathered alongside World Rugby since 2016, including a mouthguard study conducted by Otago University which measured head impacts. Law trials carried out in England, South Africa and France also influenced the decision.
In the face of dozens of lawsuits, the RFU fundamentally wants to change the nature of the tackle away from head-on-head contacts.
Ball-carriers will also be “encouraged to follow the principle of evasion” and to “avoid late dipping”, while referees will be asked to “focus on the actions of the ball-carrier as well as the tackler when head contact occurs”.
Unlike France, two-person tackles will be allowed. The unintended consequences of two tacklers colliding heads remains to be seen.
Similarly, more offloads are likely to occur too, perhaps allowing rugby to open up more in the loose.
“Research [from the French trials] also found that offloads increased, from 12 per match to 19, the average number of passes increased from 178 to 193, and kicks fell from 16 per match to just 11,” former England hooker Brian Moore pointed out in a column for The Telegraph.
The radical change follows studies in France, who introduced similar measures in 2019 following a spate of rugby-related deaths, and reported a 63 per cent reduction in head-on-head contacts.
The RFU’s decision, which was announced at noon on Thursday, came as 55 former amateur players joined the class-action lawsuit against rugby’s governing bodies, including the World Rugby, the RFU and Welsh Rugby Union, saying they were not adequately protected from permanent brain injuries.
World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin applauded the RFU’s proactive move.
“This is a prime example of the sport, once again, putting our words into action,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, the move has received massive pushback from former players and observers.
Nick Easter, the former England No.8 turned coach, slammed the decision. “I don’t think this is the solution,” Easter told The Times.
“My players come in two nights a week and you can’t be spending all that time on retraining a logged-in, long-term muscle memory.
“You take away the very fabric of the game, which is a contest of possession. It’s going to be very difficult for referees who have enough problems as it is.”
While Joe Marler, the England tight-head prop, reacted on social media by issuing an exploding head emoji.
Premiership-based Wallabies prop, Oli Hoskins, who was a part of a law trial in the Championship Cup in 2019, which banned tackles above the armpit, too hit out at the new measures.
“Tackle choice is situational and forcing low tackles in all cases is even more dangerous. I think the trial showed this,” Hoskins said.
While Maro Itoje’s brother, Jeremy, who plays for Harrow RFC, said the “RFU have made the refs life a lot harder”.
He added: “[It’s] killing the sport through ruining grassroots.”
Moore, however, said rugby officials could not ignore the evidence being found in rugby.
“Rugby’s duty is to take all reasonable steps to reduce foreseeable risks that could cause damage and loss. And, by the way, if it is a legal requirement, there must also be a moral imperative to act within its strictures,” Moore wrote in The Telegraph.
“Once rugby set out to research the issue of concussion, which is a damn sight more than many other sports have done, it cannot ignore the findings.”