English rugby’s leading players and administrators want stricter penalties for high tackles following the release of statistics that show the severity of injuries in top-level rugby is on the rise. The idea of a visible line being printed on jerseys is among ideas being considered to try to reduce the professional game’s worrying attrition rate.
While there has been a small drop in the number of concussions, figures for the 2017-18 season have prompted calls for “significant changes” to the game from the RFU medical services director, Dr Simon Kemp, after the injury-related burden on players (a measure combining injury incidence and their severity) was found to be at its highest level since 2002.
Kemp said: “There is strong evidence that while the likelihood of injury in the professional game appears to be stable, the increase in injury severity means the overall burden of injury is increasing. The data suggests that more significant changes to the game might be needed to reverse these trends.”
Kemp also said that, based on the latest findings of the Professional Game Action Plan on Player Injuries, a joint collaboration between the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, there is a need for greater clarity and tougher sanctions around legal tackle height.
“We believe the threshold for receiving a card for a high tackle is currently too high if we’re going to change player behaviour and reduce concussion,” Kemp said. “Currently around the world you are three times more likely to see a card for a deliberate knock-on than you are for a high tackle. We, and World Rugby, don’t believe the sanction of yellow or red cards occurs frequently enough to change player behaviour.”
Overall the average severity of match injuries – ie the length of time it takes to return to play for 2017-18 – has risen to 37 days, the second consecutive season the figure has been above its expected upper limit.
For the third year in a row concussion also emerged as the most common injury, followed by hamstring injuries. Concussion accounted for 18% of all injuries to the ball carrier and 37% of all injuries to the tackler, highlighting the tackle as the game’s most critical area. The 2017-18 season was the first in which there were more injuries to the tackler than the ball carrier, with 52% of all match injuries being associated with the tackle.
There was, however, found to be one fewer concussion every eight games compared with last season but Kemp has described the change as “minimal” and says continuing trials in the Championship Cup may yet see a maximum tackle height line added to players’ jerseys.
“Whether we need a line on the shirt is something that will be considered as part of the Championship Cup trial,” Kemp said. “At the moment the guidance we’re getting is that we don’t need it but it’s something we’ll review.”
Action has already been taken to try to reduce the startlingly high rates of injury suffered by players training with England. The combination of severity and number of injuries was five times above the domestic average – Bath’s Beno Obano has still not played since being injured at an England camp last May – and Nigel Melville, the RFU’s acting chief executive, said Eddie Jones’s regime has been under the spotlight.
“We did recognise a problem and we have discussed it at the Professional Game Board,” Melville said. “International players train at greater intensity, so we’re trying to manage players better as they transition from one environment to another. We think that is starting to show some positive signs.”
Melville is also hoping a World Rugby seminar in France in March will produce further ways of improving the situation, either by designing better laws or reinforcing existing ones. With the game being played at increasing pace by bigger bodies who are enduring a rising number of collisions, doing nothing is clearly not an option. “This is a global problem” Melville said. “We can’t change the laws, but World Rugby can. We’re happy to help, we’ve got data and we have already been collaborating with them.”
No other union in the world has collated such detailed data over such a length of time. Minimum standards for the maintenance of artificial pitches are also now set to be written into the Premiership’s minimum standards criteria following evidence that injuries sustained on an artificial surface are often longer term than those which occur on grass.