Spare a thought for amateur rugby, it needs it.
The Six Nation stadiums were quiet places last weekend, players and supporters catching their breath from what is turning out to be a mesmerising championship.
So, there’s time to look at some issues which threaten the amateur or community side of things, both schools and clubs, who make up in excess of 95 per cent of the total playing population, a massive majority. Much of the problem, but not all, revolves around the tackle.
It doesn’t seem so long ago when a key part of my then IRFU role was to head up its Laws Group, take soundings from across all levels of the game, and then bring the outcome of our views to the Six Nations and to World Rugby.
Each union did the same, with proposals of real merit then going forward for playing trials to see how things worked, before being incorporated into law. The system ensured, both pro and amateur, that the game was whistled to the same tune.
We now see what appears to be an inevitable divergence in the laws applicable to each level, even though the amateurs mirror the style of the professionals, whose physicality too often becomes brutality; that’s where a large part of the problem lies.
There is, though, a huge difference. Professionals are highly paid to take, and dole out, very heavy punishment. And while it’s impossible to strengthen or condition a brain, they are also supported by expert medical attention always immediately to hand.
With all the goodwill in the world, amateur rugby cannot come close to providing similar care. Let’s not fool ourselves either. Concussions are occurring in schools and clubs, and that, unfortunately but indisputably, puts the game in a high-risk place.
Club and school matches can be terrific contests, but frightening in intensity and force of collisions. A large crowd watched a recent schools match with two packs slugging it out, the winning scores coming only after continuous goal-line “pick and drives,” it was trench warfare. It’s impossible to blame those who are saying “no, thank you” to the prospect of such a hard, attritional sport.
In trying to sort out the tackle height, individual unions have been paddling their own canoes down different rivers, resulting in several different solutions, which is definitely not a good thing.
In England, the RFU announced that the height would be reduced to waist level for their community game. The ink wasn’t even dry on that communiqué when there was an enormous kick-back against it. Consultation had been sorely lacking, and no proof or evidence produced that this was demonstratively the correct thing to do. Back-tracking at high pace, the RFU apologised profoundly, promising a more inclusive, in-depth approach. Not quite their finest hour.
Anecdotal decisions are the worst of the worst and all that happens is that the loudest voices get their way. Insisting that tacklers go to waist level or below has all the potential to make things worse by exposing them to forceful awkward collisions with the ball carrier’s hip or knee.
New Zealand’s sternum height, supported by evidence, makes a lot more sense, and, although some of the detail around a second tackler muddies the water somewhat, it definitely seems the best starting point.
France completed their own trials, subsequently deciding that the waist should be the maximum height, with the added provisos of no double tackles, and not allowing the ball carrier to dip into the tackler. Try to referee all of that, a nightmare of enormous difficulty and inconsistency.
Closer to home, it’s clear that the IRFU have kept their powder dry for the moment. It’s wiser to move on this vitally important issue only when there’s as much certainty as possible that the correct fork in the road has been identified.
An additional problem for the IRFU might be where to draw the tackle line for schools, which have effectively become junior academies for the pro game. These players are only 17 or 18 years old, studying for their future, and whatever is safest for them must govern the thinking.
The professional game is keeping an eye on all the high tackle data but is unlikely to move in a hurry, while, at the same time, the amateurs cannot afford to wait.
In this most vexed issue, World Rugby have a key pivotal role and will make researched recommendations for the amateur game during the next few months. That’s a necessary and welcome move which will, hopefully, facilitate a global conversation amongst unions. A universal approach is needed which is both safe and practical, and as straightforward as possible for referees.
Apart from the tackle, other potential changes to the laws exist which would make the sport safer, more enjoyable.
Limit the distance a maul can advance and (in any maul) require the ball to be released when it moves inside the five-metre defensive line, thus no more tries which can’t be legally defended.
Limit, too, the number of pick and drives per sequence of play, and outlaw ‘torpedo’ clearouts at the breakdown. These might also be very beneficial to the pro-game, definitely worth trying.
The brain-injury doomsday clock has already struck midnight for too many former players across the whole game, who, with their families, are now suffering the horrors of early-onset dementia. We can only hope that today’s players will be spared the same fate and that those of the future may avoid the possibility by sensible, meaningful changes to the laws.
If not, parents of schoolchildren and young ‘amateur’ adults, so many already disillusioned and doubtful, will call halt. Where to for rugby then? Maybe similar to the games in ancient Rome’s Colosseum – thousands queuing up to watch, but not too many wanting to take part. It could hardly be more serious.