The Wrap: Rugby’s leadership failings only add confusion to head injury debate


If it wasn’t so serious and so goddam predictable it would be funny; rugby finding itself in the middle of an internal conflict that totally misses the point.

A matter that has at its heart, an all too familiar deficit of leadership.

Over the years, rugby has shown a remarkable penchant to tie itself in knots, to lurch from one crisis to the next.

We’re talking about the fissure, in 1895, that led to the formation of rugby league; north versus south spats over home-town refereeing; the spinal injury crisis of the 1970s and 80s; ‘boot payments’ to amateur players and the stumble into professionalism in the 1990s; the subsequent divergence of professional and amateur rugby; the emergence and uncertain use of technology; and now, the existential threat to rugby that is head/brain injury.

Ten days ago, England’s RFU tipped a lorry load of petrol onto that particular fire, announcing that from the beginning of the 2023/24 season, in an effort to reduce the number of head injuries, they would implement a law trial, to apply at all levels of the amateur game, to outlaw tackles above the waist.

The UK is home to a number of prominent advocates on the issue of concussion in rugby, but if the RFU was expecting straightforward compliance they were to be sadly mistaken. Within days, more than 200 clubs had railed together to protest the RFU’s move, and their lack of consultation. This has since escalated into calls for RFU Chairman Bill Sweeny to resign.

To say that rugby’s leadership has lost control of the narrative around head injuries would be to imply that they had it in the first place. That would be an error.

There are two main elements which encompass this crisis and its solution. One is the medical issue itself; the nature of brain injury and the range of debilitating conditions that can afflict players.

More science and more certainty are needed, but the evidence base is already substantial and compelling. Anyone who isn’t yet convinced, or even open to the idea that head injuries suffered by a number of players during their rugby career is linked to deleterious outcomes post-career, simply doesn’t want to look.

The other main element is what rugby decides to do about the problem, and how the sport goes about implementing changes and solutions.

In recent years, World Rugby has gone down a path of, where informed by evidence, attempting to reshape elements of the game, with a view to minimizing concussion incidences.

These measures include insisting upon no contact to the head, regardless of intent, supported by yellow and red card sanctions. Also in this category are the experimental laws introduced in Australia’s NRC in 2017; the goal-line drop out replacing the 5m scrum, designed to not only reduce the number of scrums but to disincentivise teams from trying to smash their way over the line, and the 50:22, designed to reduce the density of defenders in the collision line.

In 2019 France’s FFR introduced the same waist tackle height restriction that England has just announced for their amateur rugby, and in October last year, NZ Rugby announced a similar move, albeit with the maximum tackle height set at the sternum.

The French experience was one of initial teething problems as referees and players took time to adjust, but a significant reduction in head injuries. More details can be found in this comprehensive summary published by consultant to World Rugby, Ross Tucker.

Why then, the pushback from England’s grass roots, and scepticism elsewhere, including Australia? Enter two of rugby’s recurring challenges; governance and communication.

World Rugby is responsible for the laws of the game, and the professional game, but it does not directly administer amateur rugby. That responsibility rests with each of its member nations.

That’s a recipe for confusion; rugby splintering in line with differing interpretations and emphases, different time-lines, and the capability of individual administrations to manage change.

World Rugby chairman Alan Gilpin, believes that it is inevitable that there will be distinct differences between the amateur and professional game, stating last week, “we’ve got to recognise they’re not the same sport.”

This is a tricky proposition. Many people play (or played) amateur rugby and watch professional rugby. They are smart enough to recognise where there are differences – mostly with respect to speed, strength and conditioning – but they also inherently understand rugby as a whole. They want to recognise it as one sport, and they want all of rugby, amateur and professional, to make sense.

It is here where the detail matters. How will things work in practice? For example, the concept of apportioning responsibility to a ball carrier lowering his body height is a difficult one to grasp at first.

How will mauls be effectively countered if defenders are not allowed to target either the legs or upper body? How do referees treat passive or ‘soaking’ contact that occurs a millimetre above the sternum? How is the pick and go defended, close to the try line?

These are fair questions for people to ask, because these are the things that potentially tear at the fabric of the game, and people’s understanding of it.

Some of the anger from English clubs stems from a belief that they are being made to suffer for the sins of the professional game; its evolution into a power sport, with its focus on winning collisions, and gang-style defence aimed at shutting down offloads and slowing down the ball recycle.

World Rugby has spent the last few years trying to drive change in the professional game using blunt force sanctions. The failure to conclusively change player behaviour is a result of too much reliance being placed on referees, a judicial system overweight with ‘good bloke’ discounts, and coaches naturally reluctant to be the first to volunteer their team to adopt a different style of defending.

In that light, a reversion to plan B, to implement behaviour changes from the ground up, through junior and amateur rugby, is understandable.

Or would have been, had Gilpin not appeared to walk back his position, saying on Friday, “we know, from all of the research and science and medicine, that lowering the tackle height is a really important part of making the game safer,” before responding on Saturday to a question about rugby lowering tackle height below shoulder level, saying, “I don’t think it’s inevitable.”

This is where we get to the root of the RFU’s and World Rugby’s folly. Mixed messaging and the failure to understand the basic fundamentals of change management.

Witness the RFU, scrambling for cover in Friday’s belated attempt to appease the angry masses; “We will publish further information, including videos and FAQ’s in the coming days, to provide further guidance,” said a statement.

This is akin to slapping a band aid on a severed limb. Organisations wishing to effect change successfully must first define the problem, devise the solution, engage all stakeholders on the need for change, gain acceptance, construct a cohesive, integrated plan and implement it in a way that sees everybody take ownership and responsibility for their small part in it.

In rugby language, that means spruiking the scientific data, emphasizing that the proposed changes are a trial, articulating what the key metrics are, explaining what shifting from a collision game to a contact game actually means, reinforcing how doing nothing is not an option, and building trust in the motivation behind the change. All before attempting to implement it.

Everything circles back to governance and communication. The reaction in New Zealand to their proposed change has been nowhere near as feral as in the UK. This has something to do with the difference between the sternum and the waist, but more to do with the work done by NZ Rugby, led in this area by Chris Lendrum, and his understanding of the need to engage with the rugby community.

Rugby Australia CEO Andy Marinos meanwhile, explained on Saturday how Australia has elected to sit on the sidelines and observe. This is partly because they are looking for World Rugby to lead, and partly because they don’t have the resources nor the stomach to take the lead in an environment where the popularity of rugby league and the strength of rugby league media would make it difficult for them to prosecute any ‘softening down’ argument.

As abject as their performance has been, all of the blame does not lie with the RFU. World Rugby’s failure to lead, to take responsibility for guiding all of the game, professional and amateur, through what is a pivotal juncture, is damning.

This column has called previously for the appointment of a global ‘concussion commissioner’; a dedicated senior executive, appointed at the same level as director of rugby Phil Davies, likely an ex-player of repute, to be responsible for managing the issue in its entirety; medical, research, legal, laws, officiating and judiciary, rugby operations (including coaching of tackle technique), and communications, including broadcasting and fan engagement.

This would be a more convincing strategy than relying on World Rugby’s communications officer, Dominic Rumbles, on Twitter, in the wake of the negative reaction to the RFU announcement, directing people to a UK Times article which sits behind a paywall.

Broadcasters and commentators must be brought along. It is true that some efforts have been made to engage and inform the rugby media and that these have been met with a degree of resistance. But that’s nothing a global concussion commissioner wouldn’t be able to overcome.

Without this, opportunities to better inform and unite rugby followers behind a common safety goal, are undermined on a weekly basis; the issue thrown to the mercy of individual commentators; a few of them constructive and well-informed, many the opposite.

It isn’t hard to imagine an effective communications strategy. Why has everyone with an interest in the game not received a digital information pack from World Rugby, outlining the intent and rationale behind the need for change?

The day many of us decided to be non-smokers was the day, at school, we got to see, in vivid close up, the fleshy, pink lungs of a non-smoker alongside the black, shrivelled lungs of a smoker.

The brain of someone afflicted with CTE looks different to one without. The same opportunity exists in rugby to vividly imprint the need for change into the minds of every participant and fan.

Throw in some educational video, passages from the books of Steve Thompson and Michael Lipman, and the voices of Alix Popham, Carl Hayman and Ryan Jones; just a few of the good rugby men who the game has failed.

Add testimonials from respected ex-players who are working on the World Rugby committees to find the sweet spot between safety and aesthetics. People who the rugby community look up to. Develop trust in the process, and convince people that all reasonable alternatives have been exhaustively considered and assessed.

Explain how coaching initiatives around tackle technique will accompany the change and will be rolled out.

Information is key. Clarity of message, consistency and repeated communication is how you effect change. One message to the whole rugby world. ‘Yes, as a result of changing the tackle height, concussions will still occur but they will be fewer. That is what the evidence says, and that is a better outcome for the sport.’

Also drowned out in the current shouting match over whether a line should be drawn across the waist or the sternum, is the occurrence of CTE as a result of the accumulation of sub-concussive hits, and what is to be done about that. This cannot be ignored.

Last week, this column was strident in its criticism of Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan for his handling of the transition from Dave Rennie to Eddie Jones as Wallabies coach.

In the days since, FFR Chairman Bernard Laporte has been sacked for alleged corrupt dealings, chairman Bill Sweeney’s has led the RFU into this shitstorm, and the Welsh Rugby Union CEO Steve Phillips has resigned after widespread condemnation of his handling of revelations of shameful management practices.

The danger for rugby is that, with such a low bar being set for leadership performance, the sport loses focus on what is really important, and potentially misses the opportunity to make necessary, constructive change on its own terms.

These types of crises have been met and overcome before. Data gathered in Australia by the Spinecare Foundation found that post-1985, after law changes and an intensive coaching focus, there was a 67% reduction in the number of scrum engagement spinal injuries.

The real issue today isn’t the ineptitude of the RFU, or the confounding inability of World Rugby to lead and manage the sport through change. As ever, what matters is looking after the health of those who play the game.

This can be achieved whilst retaining the essence of rugby. Eventually, almost certainly, it will be. But rugby’s leaders are making things a lot more difficult than they need to be.

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