Rugby: Are the New Rules for “Health and Safety” Taken Too Far?

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Player safety is something that has always had to be at the forefront of what the International Rugby Union (IRU) is considering, for obvious reasons. However, the new set of rules brought into action to kick off 2017 has come under attack.

First of all, what are the new rules and why were they deemed necessary? The new rules state that when there is a dubious tackle, the referee must ask himself these three questions:

  1. Was the contact high?
  2. What was the force of the contact?
  3. Was the hit malicious?

If the tackle meets any of these criteria then the offender could easily face a red card. The law also includes a line stating that a player going into a tackle knowing that there is a chance of making contact with the head carries a minimum sanction of a yellow, regardless of intent. It’s clear to see the aim of these new rules- protecting the players. The IRU found that 73% of head injury assessments came from contact in the tackle which was the root reason that the law was changed.

However, do these rules go too far? On the 7th January, Saracens hosted Exeter in one of the first games since the rule change. During the first half, Brad Barrit and Richard Barrington made a joint high tackle (although there was no malicious intent), that saw Barrington receive a red card. Arguably, there should have been a red for Barrit as well as he was more at fault then Barrington. The referee was reluctant to deliver such sanctions, but following the letter of the law he had no choice. This is just one example of the referee’s hand being forced to dish out punishments that hurt the enjoyment of the game. Nobody wants to watch a team reduced to 13 men and get pummelled by their opponent.

But is this just all growing pains? Some people have argued it is, citing that these new rules force tacklers to go much lower. They are forcing the resurgence of the old school technique, cheek to (bum) cheek, which is how many young players are taught to tackle. If people start reverting to this method rather than the higher “bear hug” tackles that have started to gain popularity, the game could really open up. It means that the ball carrier will have their arms free to be able to make an offload with a lot more ease than before. One only has to imagine what a team such as New Zealand who already excel at getting the ball away in the tackle will be able to do with so much more to work with.

Regardless of whether these new rules will open the game up or not, many consider the wording to be too vague and open to abuse. If a ball carrier goes into a tackle, dipping their shoulder so that only their head is presented to the opposition, the tackler will have no option but to make contact with the head – or not make the tackle at all. On top of that, even if the ball carrier doesn’t dip their shoulder, the tackler’s head is far more likely to make contact with the opposing player’s elbows/hips/knees. This would merely transfer the risk of head injuries to the tackler rather than the ball carrier.

Only time will tell what the ultimate result will be of these new rules. There certainly will be interesting times ahead, as we see how teams and players try to change and adapt to this new style of play.

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