An incident in a recent Gallagher Premiership game between Wasps and Leicester has stirred the passions of players, pundits and fans. Just before half-time in the match, Leicester’s Will Spencer’s high tackle saw his arm connect with the head of Wasps’ Tommy Taylor, earning Spencer a red card. This decision has been widely debated and, at the time of the incident, Leicester captain Tom Youngs was overheard saying “rugby’s changed, rugby’s changed.” For better or worse, the game certainly has changed over the past few years, but is this for the good of the sport and the safety of its players, or is it the end of rugby as it should be?
In this case, the change that has drawn the ire of critics has been in the tackle laws. In recent years, referees have been encouraged to harshly punish high tackles in the name of reducing concussions, with tackles that connect with the head with force almost certain to be punished with a red card and a suspension (Spencer received a four-week ban for his tackle).
This has faced severe backlash from players past and present, most notably Leicester interim coach Geordan Murphy, who claimed that “the game has gone too PC”, and Edinburgh’s head coach Richard Cockerill, who played and coached for Leicester, commenting that “If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t play the sport.” Even current Wasps centre Jimmy Gopperth and Wasps coach Dai Young, both pundits for BT Sport at the match in question, thought the decision was a harsh call.
These critics do have some valid points. For Spencer, a 6ft 7in lock, to effectively tackle Taylor, a 6ft 2in hooker, without going close to making a high tackle, is a difficult task, and these new rules have made tackling for taller players even more precarious. It is understandable for these players, who have spent their whole careers knowing greater leniency on high tackles, to be taken aback by challenges like Spencer’s now being deemed a red card offence. These harsher penalties for violating the laws of the game do make rugby a different sport to what it was in the recent past.
“High tackles can have serious consequences for players”
However, it is worth remembering why these stricter interpretations have been introduced to the game. These high tackles can have serious consequences for the long-term health of players, with concussion carrying potentially permanent brain damage and trauma for its sufferers. It may be impossible to totally eliminate this danger from a game like rugby, but any effort to reduce this danger for players, including a stricter enforcement of the laws on high tackles, should be welcome, with a 2017 study highlighting how a reduction in the head-to-head contact that occurs during high tackles would minimise the risk of concussion.
Rugby would also do well to take heed from the epidemic of brain trauma in American football, where 99% of former NFL players were found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. Whilst rugby does not have the same amount of head-to-head contact as American football, this evidence should be a lesson to the sport to never get complacent about head injuries.
It is also particularly disheartening for Geordan Murphy to complain about these tackle laws, given that one of his own players, Dominic Ryan, was forced to retire a couple of weeks before the Wasps fixture due to complications from concussion. This follows other recent retirements to high profile players including Lions tourist Jared Payne and All Black Jason Eaton, therefore, dealing with the issue should surely be the sport’s top priority. Despite his complaint, Murphy has since acknowledged the importance of reducing head injuries in the sport.
“These changes could be the catalyst for a more open game”
Whilst these rule changes have modified the game, the consequences should not be seen as overwhelmingly negative. Although these harsher adaptations of the law might make players more careful in the physicality of their tackles, there is still plenty of room for the hard hits that rugby is famous for to be performed legally. Matches have hardly become the glorified version of touch rugby that some critics have caricatured it as. These changes could also prove to be the catalyst for a more open game. As higher tackles are usually made as an attempt to stop a player passing the ball, a cultural change to lower tackling should make more teams play an exciting brand of rugby based on offloading and skill rather than just brute force.
Overall, the idea of rugby “going too PC” is exaggerated. Many players will be forced to change their tackling techniques to avoid the same fate as Will Spencer, and that will take time for players to adapt to and get used to, as well as the referees who need to improve in enforcing the changes consistently. However, what the game will lose in a degree of physicality should be more than made up for with a game that poses less of a long-term health risk to its players and offers the possibility of more attacking play.