Even though it is a sport of immense physicality, there are still rules in place in both codes of rugby that protect the welfare of the players.
The high tackle rule was introduced to outlaw tackles that targeted the ball carrier’s head and neck, predominantly, with contact above the shoulders penalised.
That was accepted by the rugby community, but new plans to ban tackles above the waist are being considered by the sport’s officials – leading to an outcry amongst players, coaches and those that love the game.
No sport has introduced a new law that would have such a dramatic impact on the action out on the pitch as this, and while rugby officials should be applauded for doing what they can to prevent concussions and devastating injuries, is the proposed new high tackle rule a step too far?
What Is the High Tackle Rule In Rugby?
Up until January 2023, a high tackle in rugby was construed as one that saw a tackler make contact with an opposition above the shoulders.
The law, introduced by World Rugby in 2017, was designed to minimise the number of incidences in which head injuries were being experienced as a result of aggressive high tackling.
A high tackle can be determined to be deliberate – contact designed to bring the ball carrier to the ground, potentially in an attempt to injure them, or accidental, such as a clash of heads.
The penalties for a high tackle ranged from a penalty conceded (typically when the contact was adjudged to be accidental) to a yellow or red card for ‘reckless’ and dangerous play.
The new rules on high tackling helped to reduce the number of dangerous contacts being made on the pitch, although they didn’t eliminate above-the-shoulder tackles altogether.
And with rugby facing a number of legal battles with as many as 280 former players suing the sport’s authorities for degenerative neurological conditions they have suffered, it was decided by the powers-that-be that more needs to be done.
What Is the New High Tackle Rule In Rugby?
For the past couple of years, a number of rugby’s governing bodies have been running studies to see how they can make the sport safer without completely taking away its physicality.
And in January 2023, the RFU – England’s Rugby Football Union – revealed that a high tackle, under proposed new laws, would be any contact made above the waist.
It was originally thought that the new rule would be imposed upon the grassroots game only, however it has since been confirmed that the high tackle law change will be implemented at both National One and Championship One levels in the men’s and women’s professional ranks.
A statement from the RFU reads:
“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 and an increased risk of concussion.
“Lowering the height of the tackle and encouraging the tackler to bend more at the waist will minimise the risk of this occurring while maintaining the tackle as an integral part of the game.”
The changes will be implemented in time for the domestic 2023/24 season, although it’s believed that the high tackle guideline will remain at shoulder height for the 2023 World Cup.
What Has the Reaction Been?
As you can imagine, there has been uproar amongst those that play and love rugby, with several prominent figures in the sport decrying the ‘softening’ of the game.
Nick Easter claims the new law could signal the ‘death’ of rugby, England international Joe Marler simply tweeted the ‘exploding head’ emoji to communicate his displeasure and Ireland head coach Andy Farrell believes tacklers could be ‘sitting ducks’ for potential serious injury under the new rules if they are forced to go low into the contact.
That was explained further by former Wales international prop Lee Jarvis, who tweeted:
💯 % for player safety 👏 BUT if you lower the tackle to waist or below, then you are going to get even more injuries / concussions with knees to face / head. Players need to have a tackle choice to protect themselves as well ? https://t.co/WlMLddaHcr
— 𝐋𝐞𝐞 𝐉𝐚𝐫𝐯𝐢𝐬 (@LeeJarvis10) January 19, 2023
The rule change has proven so controversial that it has even been debated in the House of Commons, and if the list of 300 clubs that have signed a petition against the law continues to grow, the RFU could face a vote of no confidence in their abilities to effectively run English rugby.
At the time of writing, more than 16,000 people have signed a petition calling on the RFU to reverse their decision.