Rugby laws and culture need change to lower concussion rates

Inaugural conference of the Sports Law Bar Association of Ireland took place on Friday

The tackler is two and a half times more likely to be injured than the ball carrier, the first Sports Law Bar Association of Ireland conference was told. Ireland’s Seán Cronin is tackled by Mattia Bellini during the convincing Six Nations win against Italy. Photograph: Inpho

The tackler is two and a half times more likely to be injured than the ball carrier, the first Sports Law Bar Association of Ireland conference was told. Ireland’s Seán Cronin is tackled by Mattia Bellini during the convincing Six Nations win against Italy. Photograph: Inpho

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Both the laws and the culture of rugby need to be changed to disincentivise players from engaging in high-risk activity on the pitch, a conference dealing with concussion in the sport has heard.

The inaugural conference of the Sports Law Bar Association of Ireland, which took place in Dublin on Friday, was attended by barristers with specialist sports law knowledge and aimed to increase awareness of sports law and liability.

Prof Ross Tucker, a science and research consultant with World Rugby, said concussion was the “number one issue facing the sport”, and needs to be addressed.

Prof Tucker presented details of an analysis of 611 head injury assessments involving concussion during match play. Of these, 129 involved a ball carrier who was tackled, while 335 impacted the tackler.

“That’s a big difference,” said Prof Tucker. “The tackler is 2½ times more likely to be injured than the ball carrier. That has some important implications.

“If you think about the foul play laws in rugby, they are almost exclusively written to protect the ball carrier. The tackler is the one who’s behaviour we have to change, even though it’s they who are most at risk.”

Prof Tucker recommended a data-led approach to identify high risk activity, and to then change the laws of the game to disincentivise players from engaging in risky behaviour.

Dangerous play

One option, he suggested, would be to instruct referees to issue more cards for dangerous play. Currently, he said, a yellow card for a high tackle is issued once every 10.9 games. This could be increased to one in every four to five games.

Tim O’Connor, a barrister who specialises in sports law and concussion, said concussion management policies were something “that every sport should have part of the rulebook”.

“Concussion management protocols must be enforced; cultural issues must be addressed and changed; and we have to promote the concept that running it off is not an option,” he said.

“There should be no coaching or training without being certified in terms of how to manage this.”

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