Two weeks ago former Wales and British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton retired from rugby at the age of 29. He has struggled with a long list of rugby related injuries, most recently having knee surgery in December 2017 and neck surgery in September 2017 and following which he claimed, “my body is unable to give me back what I had hoped for on my return to training”.
When one considers the retirement of this young player, who chose to prioritise his long-term health and wellbeing, together the growing rate of injuries and concussions in the sport, will it provoke changes within rugby’s regulations to make it safer?
As part of the Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project, the annual injury audit of rugby union analysed injury trends. It found for example that the average time taken for players to return from injury in the 2016-2017 season was 32 days. This was the first time this figure had risen above the expected upper limit of seasonal variation. Further, concussion was the most commonly reported match injury, at 22% of all match injuries. The average time taken for players to return from medically diagnosed match concussion was 18 days and this was a rise on the previous year.As a result, in March 2018 the Rugby Football Union (“RFU”), Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association developed an eight-point plan to mitigate injury risk. A few months later and aimed at reducing the risk of head injuries, World Rugby trialled a lowering of the tackle height in Under 20 competitions. For example, the World Rugby U20 Trophy Rules read:
“Law 9.13 The acceptable height of the tackle is reduced from the line of shoulders to below the nipple line.
A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the nipple line even if the tackle starts below the nipple line.”
Warburton’s retirement, the annual injury audit and World Rugby’s reaction show that there is a need within the sport to make it safer. So what are the options for change?
Change in the law
World Rugby did in fact introduce a tougher approach to accidental and reckless head contact in 2016, as discussed in a previous blog post. Although it kept the threshold of a high tackle at the line of the shoulders, it changed the punishments for such tackles. Yet a year and a half later, the concerns about concussions in rugby remain.
Currently, under Law 9.13 of World Rugby Laws:
“A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders.”
As mentioned above, earlier this year World Rugby trialled reducing the tackle height from the shoulders to below the nipple line in the Under 20 competitions. In addition, it was last week reported that the allowed tackle height will be lowered as part of a trial in the RFU’s second tier Championship Cup Competition next season.
The new laws will penalise players who tackle above the underside of the armpit and was pushed through by the RFU, which makes change from the top seem more likely. This may have prevented Warburton’s shoulder nerve damage, dislocated shoulder, sprained shoulder joint, torn shoulder ligaments, four shoulder stringers, broken jaw and his neck surgery. Yet perhaps more importantly, it should help reduce the frequency of concussions in rugby as they can cause brain damage.
Changes in on-field technology / monitoring
Changes in the technology used to monitor players whilst playing, such as VX Sport’s Smartvest, allow teams to monitor players heart rate, high intensity distance and body impacts so that they can detect much earlier the effects of injury or concussion in real time during a match. Removing a player whose performance is decreasing can help prevent more serious injury being suffered as a result of fatigue.
Change in time spent playing
According to World Rugby vice-chairman, the governing body has been in discussions with the International Rugby Players Association about setting guidelines to limit the time spent playing the sport. However, this would be difficult to achieve, as it would involve reaching an agreement between unions and the clubs, whereby both have opposing priorities. The unions prioritise player safety yet the clubs (and their owners) prefer for players to train and play frequently as this creates better results that go hand in hand with financial success.
Change in contractual negotiations
If there is no law introduced limiting the time spent playing, as players acknowledge the health dangers associated with the sport, it may result in their lawyers negotiating some form of protection into their contracts, for example, limiting the hours they train.
Change in protocols
Yet World Rugby’s chief executive, Brett Gosper, has said that there:
“will be no law changes before the  World Cup now, but there might be directive or protocol changes, for example regarding the use of the TMO [Television Match Official]”.
Using this video referee to analyse high tackles and dangerous play may result in an increase in the number of sanctions yet it is unlikely to stop the injuries occurring in the first place and so the safety problems in rugby would likely remain.