If teams have a worse tackle completion rate, it would create more space and reduce the risk of concussion says Paul Williams
Opinion: Rugby needs to weaken defences
Everyone needs a bit of space from time to time. As a father of two kids under 13 and with three jobs, it’s a situation that I am familiar with. But the need for rugby (particularly concussion in rugby) to be given a bit of space, is far more urgent than the needs of a middle-aged man to simply nip to the tennis club for an hour.
Concussion in rugby is no longer a specialist subject that will attract a headline once a season. Concussion is now a part of every social media timeline on a daily basis and the list of players affected is becoming alarming.
These are no longer freak accidents like a prop having a neck fracture – not that those incidents are any less important. These are players with 50-plus caps for their country; they’re household names.
That a raft of players, post-amateur area, are now displaying very serious brain injuries after their careers is no longer up for debate (if you think it isn’t real or is just a ‘part of the game’, this column will file you under flat-earthers). But acknowledging the issue is, of course, only 10% of the problem. Now the game has to fix it. And it seems that tackle height and player size may only be two parts of a far wider solution.
Before we get into the possible solutions, it must be made clear that the writer of this column isn’t a doctor, rugby coach or a player who made more than ten tackles a season – even in a good year. But you don’t necessarily have to be a professional within the sport to see how much it has changed in the past 20 years.
The game now is totally different to the game I grew up watching and playing. It’s similar to the Tour de France. The TdF was conceived initially with the winner being the ‘only’ person to cross the finish line at all. In its modern form, the cyclists still use bikes and roads, but the sport is unrecognisable.
The same can be said of rugby. We still use a ball and play with 15 players, but it isn’t how the game was conceived. The evasive nature of the sport has disappeared. It isn’t even a contact sport; it’s a collision sport. You could almost brand it a crash sport.
When discussing how the game has changed, most of the conversation revolves around player size and speed. They are valid points. Centres and wings are now the height and weight of amateur back-row forwards, even locks. Second-rows are now the size of something from a Victorian freak show and props are now measured by the square foot.
But that isn’t the most obvious difference when you watch footage from the 1970s and 1980s. The most obvious difference is space. There was acres of it. If you watch a club game, or even a Test match, from the Eighties you could graze 200 head of sheep in the 12 and 13 channel.
Defences then were so disorganised that it almost seems insulting to mention it, especially when some of your heroes played in that era. But it isn’t an insult to state that tackle completions were far lower in those days; it’s a positive.
The issue with modern defences isn’t just that everyone looks like something from a freaky genetics program, it’s that there are usually 12 of them in the front line, standing on their feet, connected like a DNA sequence. There is no way around them in many cases, only through them.
So how do you solve the issue of space? It obviously won’t result from a single change, but many. It’s very difficult to dictate the weight of rugby players without some weird Orwellian practices. What you can do is make the game harder to play at that weight.
The first solution is stopping all contact in training. This would not only reduce the risk of concussions during the week but also decrease the efficiency of defensive systems and increase the need for fitness, not size. Rugby needs to get back to a 70% completion, not 90%. Anything over 85% is bad for player health and bad for the sport as a spectacle.
The other solution is limiting substitutions. Teams should have a full set of front-row forwards and two others. It will mean more tired players on the field, which means more space. It will also force coaches to pick players with a wider variety of skills and competencies and could result in hybrid players becoming a genuine feature in rugby.
We often hear Eddie Jones talk about players who can play in the backs and the forwards – this would make that a reality. All of a sudden you can’t just pick a monstrous second-row or No 8 on the bench because they might need to step in at 12.
Rugby could also look at limiting the number of players who are allowed to defend in the front line of defence. When discussing this option, you’ll usually hear rugby’s village elders ringing the church bells and lighting bonfires as it seems like a step towards rugby league.
However, rugby union has always limited the number of players who are allowed to stand in certain positions on the field. You’re only allowed eight in a scrum and the numbers at the lineout are scrutinised more aggressively than my recent energy bill, which was higher than a Top 14 wage cap.
Allowing just ten players in the immediate defensive line and five set back would create an amount of midfield space that rugby hasn’t witnessed for decades and also make the box kick seem like a waste of possession given the depth of kick defence.
The causes of the increase in concussion are as varied as the possible solutions. But one thing is undeniable: solutions are required immediately.
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