Concussions have increasingly become an issue for concern in elite rugby union. In recent years, the number of these potentially serious head injuries have soared by 59% in the Premiership.
Players are bigger, fitter, faster and stronger, the hits are harder, so it’s no surprise that a re-think of the rules around tackling has happened.
“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly” – Jonathan Davies
Several high-profile incidents have fuelled calls for more to done to protect the health and safety of those on the pitch.
Northampton Saints were heavily criticised after letting their Wales and Lions international winger George North play on after seemingly lost consciousness (see image at top) following a collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone.
North was cleared to return to the game, but BT Sport pundit Ugo Monye said at the time: “I don’t think George North should [still] be on the pitch; it’s a simple as that.”
The England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project, published in collaboration with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, showed that although the rate of injuries remained stable during the 2013-14 season, their severity continues to rise in the professional game.
The Rugby Football Union has recruited former England internationals to pioneer a study into the long-term effects of playing rugby.
World Rugby have also issued a revision to its laws which came into effect on the January 3rd.
It has increased the severity of the punishment for reckless tackles, with a minimum sanction of yellow card and a red where deemed appropriate.
It has also encouraged an increase in any accompanying bans, but the changes have confused coaches, players and spectators alike.
Ex-Wales star Jonathan Davies, now a BBC pundit, said: “Inexperienced referees have gone berserk in imposing yellow cards.
“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly. They’ve gone to the letter of the law, and it’s gone crazy.”
“Wayne Barnes admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them”
Davies argued that referees need to use common sense about what can be considered a ‘high shot’ and is a ‘cheap’ one.
A player who has fallen foul of this recently is England international Brad Barritt.
The Saracens centre was banned for three weeks after a high tackle on international team-mate Geoff Parling during the match against Exeter.
Originally, Sarries prop Richard Barrington received a red card for his part in the tackle.
However, an RFU disciplinary panel found that ref Ian Tempest had punished the wrong individual. You can see the tackle in question here and make up your own mind.
‘No massive change’
Leading international referee Wayne Barnes told BBC 5 Live recently that the laws themselves have not changed, only how officials are being told to interpret them.
Barnes insisted: “[There’s been] no massive chance, we’ve carried on doing what we’ve done for a while now.”
He admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them.
But what do people involved in grass-roots rugby union think of the situation?
I visited my local team, Esher RFC, to watch them play against Fylde, and talked to spectators about the high-tackle controversy.
Overall, there was general support for the ‘new’ laws and a recognition that something needed to be done.
James Sharman, a former Surrey county youth player, said a more rigorous approach to high tackling is the best way forward.
“It’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us”
“Having looked at the [injury] statistics, it was evident that it was only going to end up this way,” he said.
“These players are putting their bodies on the line week in, week out. They need modernised ways to protect them.”
Joel Keefe, who plays at amateur level, said the changes have been made at the right time.
“Being someone that plays rugby, it’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us,” he said.
“Now all that needs to happen is to make sure that the referees judge their decisions diligently and correctly. The worst thing that could happen is if the rules were made a mockery.”
Clearly, this fresh interpretation of rules around high tackles is going to take some time to bed in.
With the 2017 Six Nations just around the corner, and the British & Irish Lions touring New Zealand in the summer, all eyes will now turn to the international game to see how the laws are enforced at the very highest level.
There’s bound to more controversy along the way.
But ultimately, it is good to see rugby union’s governing bodies demonstrating that they are committed to protecting the players who week in, week out put their bodies on the line for club and country.