COMMENT

One of the most inevitable things about the tragedy of deaths in rugby – as with the recent loss of three young men playing the game in France – is the hand-wringing that follows, typically minus much in the way of concrete suggestions about making the game safer.

"Blood on their hands," thundered one commentator recently, pointing the finger at World Rugby before descending into an irrelevant and illogical rant about how New Zealand Rugby has condoned violence for too long.

With that rant, which carried precious few helpful suggestions about exactly what should be done, the commentator demonstrated the real obstacle to rugby improving safety: self-interest.

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His dubious connection of New Zealand Rugby to the deaths in France would have led many readers to conclude he was using the deaths as a club to beat All Blacks rugby with, designed to achieve another objective – controversy bringing eyes (and shares) to the story he wrote for his website.

That obscured an undoubtedly genuine concern for player welfare; worse, such easily discernible self-interest negates such commentary as a force for change.

World Rugby is self-interested, as changing a code by the degree required to make the game safer is (a) a huge undertaking and (b) difficult to do without ruining the very elements that make rugby popular to play and watch.

All rugby authorities, including New Zealand, have an interest in the status quo as the professional game is fuelled by money; funding threatened by wholesale change although also threatened by any suggestion the game is throwing young lives into danger.

So sorrow and platitudes tend to be expressed before things go on as before or some rule changes which speak to enhanced safety but do not cover all the bases.

Like the focus on high tackles. One of the French deaths came from a double tackle – a part of the game which has proliferated in modern times and which intensifies the growing administrative concentration on lowering the tackle zone. Potential new laws recently trialled tackles kept below nipple height.

This comes even though the most reliable statistics available suggest we may be aiming at the wrong target.

The research most often used to highlight concussion is the 1500-game study by World Rugby from 2013-2015; it concluded 76 per cent of head injuries occur in the tackle – with 73 per cent of those suffered by the tackler. Another survey from England's RFU revealed only 20 per cent of concussions was suffered by the ball carrier, 47 per cent by the tackler and the rest through collisions like the breakdown.

See? We may be protecting the wrong people. Players also know of the helpful side-effect of the high tackle laws; they often bend over low when carrying the ball, promoting the possibility of a penalty and/or red or yellow card if the tackler gets it wrong.

Many talk of better tackle technique but most of that discussion suggests it's easy for immense, fast, elusive athletes at elite level to get it right all the time. It isn't. Even for the experts, it's all too easy to get it wrong in the split seconds available.

So what needs to happen to make rugby safer? First, World Rugby needs to acknowledge it made a mistake with the modern ruck and maul laws. They introduced clean-outs (negating what should be an enshrined law of rugby – that you can only play the man with the ball, not those without it) and a style which results in most of the finely-tuned power athletes on the pitch presenting a defensive wall of damaging potential.

The tackle has become a means of winning possession, as has the modern ruck where a player on his feet tries to burgle the ball while today's bigger, faster players aim their bodies at him to take him out. While that is occurring, defenders spread across the field, targeting ball carriers with, yes, double tackles sometimes, accompanied by an almost non-existent policing of the offside rules.

That is in contrast to the old rucking style where feet were used either to rake the ball back or to move the ruck over the ball and win possession that way. Most, if not all the forwards, were engaged in that struggle for possession, meaning more space for the ball runners in the backs.

Ironically, the change was made for safety reasons – or maybe cosmetic reasons. In those days, rugby felt parents were increasingly inclined to keep their little Jasons and Samanthas away from the game when they saw boots and sprigs damaging players on the ground.

Doesn't seem quite as dangerous now, does it? Call me old-fashioned but what about a return to a style of rugby which returns the forwards more to the possession-gathering stakes but which doesn't preclude them acting as ball-carriers or lessening the speed of the modern game?

That seems the best way to promote safety in a game which, let's face it, is a contact sport which will suffer the occasional death no matter what is done – as in all sports which involve risk.

We could try, too, substitutions prevented unless injury replacements. Instead of half a new team of power athletes arriving when players tire around 60 minutes, they would have to play 80m. Many are bulked up to achieve maximum power in a 60m spell but, for 80 minutes, they would have to be lighter to reduce fatigue and less likely to be a wrecking ball in a concussion- or damage-promoting situation.

That returns us to self-interest. For the game to do the above, it will have to acknowledge it isn't safe right now. We seem a long way from that; maybe all we can expect is for more measures like protecting the ball carrier when it is the tackler most at risk, rather than any kind of systemic change.