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'Can of worms': Rugby Australia introduce radical tackle law reform to protect players

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1st December, 2023
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After England’s Rugby Football Union introduced drastic measures to lower the tackle height, Rugby Australia have followed suit by banning tackles above the sternum across all levels of community rugby.

From the Shute Shield to Hospital Cup and all levels of rugby outside of the professional arm, players will have to tackle below the sternum from February 2024 under the two-year trial.

The decision has been made to try and make the game safer and encourage young boys and girls to pick up a ball.

It comes after six years of research carried out by World Rugby, which has found that the move should see a significant decrease in concussions and, interestingly, an increase in offloads.

Indeed, across amateur rugby in France, where the tackle height was reduced to the waist, there was a 64 per cent reduction in head-on-head contacts and 23 per cent decrease in concussions.

In New Zealand, 90 per cent of first tackles dropped to below the sternum while there was a 65 per cent increase in offloads.

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South Africa also recorded a 30 per cent decrease in concussions.

Samu Kerevi carried the ball into contact against Georgia during the 2023 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

After the RFU was criticised for introducing the measures overnight and failing to include its stakeholders in the decision, RA reached the decision after engaging with its member unions after signing up in principle to support World Rugby’s endeavours to lower the tackle height.

The governing body is hoping that by doing so, they don’t get the push back other unions around the world have.

Nonetheless, they are bracing for some push back, particularly with studies showing that penalty counts do increase to begin with, before returning to pre-reform numbers.

“Research from around the world has clearly identified safety as the number one issue preventing fans and potential players from taking up the game,” Rugby Australia chief executive and former Wallabies captain Phil Waugh said.

“Obviously it is impossible to remove all risk from the game, however we firmly believe that promoting safer tackle techniques, and reducing the risk of head contact and concussion will lead to an even safer game. I am confident our players and coaches at all levels of the game will continue to work on safe and effective tackle technique.

“This is firmly in the best interests of the game, however there may be an adjustment period for players and match officials, and I would ask for patience and respect between all parties as we embark on this journey.

“In the French trial, they saw a significant increase in penalties in the first year of the trial, followed by a substantial drop in those numbers over the next two years as players and officials adjusted to the new measures.

“We will continue to ensure that any decisions that have the potential to impact the game are driven by research and evidence that prioritise player safety.”

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The sternum tackle height legal limit was implemented because World Rugby has found that the safest part to make a tackle is between the hips and sternum.

“The research undertaken by World Rugby to date has shown there are three different risk zones for tackling,” RA general manager of community rugby Michael Procajlo said.

“The green zone encompasses the ball carrier’s torso from the sternum to the hips – this is the safest zone to tackle. Statistically, there is a little more risk once the tackle drops below the hips – hence it becomes amber. However, the greatest risk is present when tackles go above the sternum line and there is a higher risk of head-on-head or head-on-shoulder contact.”

Defenders who tackle an attacker between the sternum and shoulder will cop a penalty, with a referee able to show a yellow card if the infringement occurs several times.

The new law 9:13 reads: “A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerous. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the sternum even if the tackle starts below the line of the sternum.”

The new law will not change the ability for an attacking player to “pick-and-go” where the ball carrier typically starts and continues at a low body height. 

Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh says tackle reform measures are in the “best interest of the game”. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

Former Wallaby turned Super W coach Scott Fava denied the game was going soft.

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“No, the game hasn’t gone soft,” said Sava, during a media briefing on Friday.

“We’re looking to make sure that we’re creating a product that works for participating and for entertainment value.

“The stats already show that there’s 64 per cent more offloads, so if we adopt that from a game point of view and we see more offloads, and the entertainment increase as a consequence of these law changes, why not.”

Wallaroos skipper Piper Duck supported the measures.

“From my point of view, the biggest hits I have seen on the field are below the sternum, in that breadbasket, looking to pop that ball,” she said.

“I think it mitigates risk but it also doesn’t eliminate that physical battle.

“If you’re too upright, you can’t make a dominant hit because you don’t have the power to go through.

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“Being taught that technique from a younger age, will therefore promote a more positive action in the upper levels.”

But former Wallabies Drew Mitchell and Berrick Barnes said the new laws could just make the game harder to officiate.

“I think it’s just going to make things more complicated, more difficult for referees and there will be more conjecture over what was and wasn’t the right thing. It’s a can of worms,” Mitchell told The Roar.

“Safety has to be paramount, but we’ve got to keep the integrity of the game.

“It’s already a difficult game to referee and, as we’ve seen with Wayne Barnes, the referees cop plenty as it is.”

Berrick Barnes says rugby needs to remain a game for all shapes and sizes. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Barnes, who suffered several concussions throughout his career, agreed.

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“Well, it’s perfect for me. I never went over the waist, so it won’t bother me too much,” he quipped.

“Are the jerseys going to have a black mark on them or something?

“It wouldn’t have affected me because all I did was go low. If I went high, I would have just got bounced. But I wasn’t 6ft 7′ [player] trying to tackle a little bloke. There still should be a place in the game to be able to hold people up.”

Rugby Australia’s head of community match officials Graham Cooper admitted there was a level of apprehension about how the games would be played out in reality.

“I think with any law change from a refereeing perspective there’s some anxiety about it,” he said.

“At the end of the day, the majority of our referees enjoy the role because of the challenge it presents. I haven’t heard someone who isn’t behind the change.

“Is it going to be an adjustment? Yes, it is, around decision-making framework, how they see the game where they’re going to stand within the game potentially.”

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The law isn’t likely to be introduced to the professional game anytime soon, with World Rugby the governing body who have the power to change the laws at the international level.

“It could do, it could do,” Procajlo said.

“We’re not across trials at the professional level, we’ll have to see how things go at the community level over the next two years.

“Anything in that area would be led by World Rugby and potentially target professional competitions at a starting point.

“Ultimately, there is a difference between the community and professional game with the support the professional teams have with on game day with matchday doctors, concussion spotters, professional referees, third match officials, all the cameras that come within it, there’s a lot more support so if there is head impact and suspected concussion it can be managed a lot tighter than in the community game.” 

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