Radical new tackle rule set to shake up sport as we know it

Cameron Mee
Updated December 1 2023 - 4:55pm, first published 2:00pm

Rugby Australia has announced historic changes to the community game in a bid to eliminate head contact from the sport.

The governing body has introduced a new rule reducing tackle height, with any contact above the bottom of the sternum now considered a high tackle.

WATCH: Rugby Australia is introducing a new tackle height law

The changes apply to all levels of the sport below Super Rugby. In Canberra that means the new rules will be implemented from the John I Dent Cup down to the junior game.

The shift follows multiple trials overseas, with early evidence in Europe, New Zealand and South Africa suggesting a lower tackle height reduces the likelihood of head-to-head contact and concussions.

Head injuries have been a major issue in contact sports across the world, with multiple organisations grappling with how to reduce the risk of concussion.

Rugby union has been a leader in the sphere, with rugby league initially slow to react before introducing rule changes in recent years.

RA is introducing a two-year trial at the community level, with officials to collate the data following this period.

While the changes have initially been introduced at the community level, it is expected they will flow through to Super Rugby and the international arena in the future.

Other sports will have a close eye on the outcome of the trial, with the expectation they will follow suit if the outcomes are positive.

In announcing the change, RA chief executive Phil Waugh said protecting player safety is a priority for his organisation.

"Research from around the world has clearly identified safety as the number one issue preventing fans and potential players from taking up the game," Waugh said.

"Obviously it is impossible to remove all risk from the game, however we firmly believe that promoting safer tackle techniques, and reducing the risk of head contact and concussion will lead to an even safer game. I am confident our players and coaches at all levels of the game will continue to work on safe and effective tackle technique."

A years-long process to eliminate head contact

The official reduction in the tackle height is the latest step in a World Rugby crackdown on contact with the head.

The governing body has introduced tougher rules at all levels of the game as part of a zero-tolerance policy on high tackles.

The changes came into sharp focus during the World Cup final when New Zealand skipper Sam Cane received a red card for a high tackle. South African captain Siya Kolisi received a yellow card for a high shot later in the game and escaped a more severe punishment after match officials determined there were mitigating factors involved.

All contact with the sternum will be banned under new laws.
All contact with the sternum will be banned under new laws.

World Rugby is currently facing a lawsuit from hundreds of former players who have accused the organisation of failing to protect them adequately from the risk of head injuries.

The risk of litigation has played a major role in the governing body's efforts to minimise head contact in recent years.

The most recent changes have received a mixed response, with people at all levels of the game eager to see a safer sport but differing opinions on how to achieve this.

There was a sense of inevitability in Canberra, with clubs anticipating the new laws for a number of months.

While the teams are optimistic the changes will have a positive impact, there are concerns World Rugby officials are altering the fabric of the game.

"We all understand we need to make rugby as safe as possible and we're seeing the long-term effect of head knocks with some of the older generations," Queanbeyan president Grant Jones said.

"We need to be mindful to keep the essence of rugby still there. It's a contact sport, the collisions are part of the sport and part of what drives people to the sport as spectators and players. We're hesitant to change too much, we don't want to change the essence of what rugby is so hopefully that doesn't happen."

Adapting to the changes

Club rugby coaches across the country will have four months to wrap their heads around the new rules and implement changes at training to prepare their players for the start of the season.

The ACT teams have been across plans for the changes, however many are still awaiting firm details on how the new tackle height will be policed.

RA confirmed there will be a renewed emphasis on enforcing existing rules banning attacking players from dipping the body moments before contact. There will also be flexibility regarding pick and drives, where the ball carrier starts at a low height, however defenders will be penalised if they make contact with the head or neck.

Club coaches across the ACT expect plenty of teething problems throughout the early weeks of the season as players adapt to a significant change and attempt to alter habits formed over many years.

This tackle will be banned under the new rules.
This tackle will be banned under the new rules.

There will also be challenges determining where the sternum sits, with referees required to make decisions on the fly.

With the new rules introduced across juniors and seniors, it's hoped children will grow up with improved tackle technique they have developed from a young age.

Wests coach Marco Cecere said the lower tackle height will be a priority area throughout the pre-season, but warned it is hard to replicate match conditions at training.

"We just need to start early," Cecere said. "It's easy to do it on a hit shield, we can set a target and it will be about repetitions and getting guys used to it.

"The hard thing will come in the heat of the battle. When you've got a big guy running at you and they dip late, as people tend to do, it's hard to match that and get down.

"We'll get a ref down to training to help talk about technique and we'll build it into pre-season training so guys are using that time to make it as much of a habit as possible."

Coaches have also raised the prospect of an increase in concussions from players suffering head knocks from knees and hips in an effort to tackle lower.

To counter this, officials have split the body up into three zones. The red zone is from the sternum up and is the most dangerous area.

The amber zone is contact below the hips, with stats confirming the risk of head contact with knees and hips.

The green zone is the ball carrier's torso from the sternum to the hips and is the safest zone to tackle.

Officials are eager to ensure players are trained to tackle in the green zone in order to protect their safety.

"Training and education will remain a strong focus for RA and the state and territory unions," RA general manager of community rugby Michael Procajlo said.

WATCH: Progressively, we are learning more and more about the long-term impacts of concussions, especially in sport. But what does that actually mean? Recorded: April 25, 2023.

"We will roll out additional face-to-face coach education sessions and an eLearning course, game management guidelines for coaches and match officials, webinars for clubs and schools, and a range of online resources to assist with the change."

Focus on junior participation

Officials hope the changes will trigger an increase in the number of junior rugby union players amid a highly competitive sporting environment.

Parents are increasingly concerned about safety and have made it a priority factor when choosing what sports their kids will play.

With grassroots participation in rugby declining in recent years, it's hoped this will attract children back to the game.

Data in France indicates the trial led to an increase in pre-COVID participation as people welcomed a safer game.

ACT Junior Rugby Union president Martin Sullivan is optimistic similar results will be seen in Canberra.

"It will be attractive to some parents that the tackle has been lowered to make it more safe," Sullivan said. "The game will probably speed up with less time spent on the breakdown.

"Everything's evolving, particularly sport and the way we manage sport. The whole focus is around safety, that's our number one priority. Not only ensuring the laws are followed but developing the game with safety aspects in mind."

Cameron Mee

Cameron Mee

Sports Journalist

Sports reporter at the Canberra Times

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