Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Rugby Law Changes: In Focus

Rugby is a sport that’s beloved by many, from the passionate fans to the talented professional players. In recent years, however, the conversation has shifted towards player safety and safeguarding, which has led many to question the dangers that this sport can pose to long-term players.

As an ever-changing sport, rugby continues to grow and evolve with the latest scientific findings and research. This includes new directives and amendments that arrive year after year, with changes designed to enhance player safety and make the sport more entertaining.

Here we take a closer look at the amendments that have been made and how rugby law changes can future proof this sport.

The link between head injuries and neurodegenerative diseases

Over the last few years, rugby has hit the headlines with discussions surrounding player safety and long-term health. This includes an increased focus on concussion-related health problems, particularly the link between repeated concussions and a higher risk of developing brain diseases later in life.

This cause for concern has proven to be valid with a vast number of medical studies showing that professional rugby players are far more likely to suffer from diseases related to traumatic head injuries. This was further highlighted by Professor Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist at the University of Glasgow, whose research team found that rugby players were at double the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and 15 times more likely to develop motor neurone disease.

The professor went on to recommend that the sport should be reducing playing and training time, as well as taking the steps to lower the risk of repetitive concussions and head injuries.

Safeguarding steps taken by World Rugby

In light of these findings, World Rugby has implemented law amendments in a bid to advance player welfare. This includes the following changes:

  • Lowering tackle height and introducing red cards for high tackles
  • A commitment to establishing brain health services for former players
  • Partnering with leading experts and promoting brain health education
  • Using innovative mouthguard technology to better understand head impacts and take informed measures
  • Implementing a minimum 21-day stand down after a concussion or brain injury
  • Providing a minimum annual rest period of eight weeks, with at least two weeks occurring in-season
  • Fines, points and punishments for non-compliance with safety rules

With World Rugby’s ongoing commitment to research and reform, the sport could see further changes over the next few years. Depending on findings and advice from medical experts, the organisation could introduce additional preventative measures such as mandatory brain injury education, limits on contact training and fewer substitutions during matches.

Further law changes

In 2021, the World Rugby launched the Brain Health Initiative to increase awareness about risk factors that can lead to degenerative diseases. When speaking about this change, World Rugby chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont, said:

“We care deeply about every member of our rugby family, and constantly strive to safeguard and support our players. We have consistently acted on evolving science and evidence to advance player welfare for all… We must, and are, putting those players at the heart of our welfare plans.

“Good brain health is much wider than what happens on the field, and we have more control over it than you would think.

“It is about creating community, starting conversations and building an understanding of how we all can make lifestyle changes that can positively impact our long-term wellbeing.

“At the same time, we will not sit still in evolving our game to ensure it best protects those playing it.”

Since then, the organisation has worked to reform the sport. This includes many of the amendments mentioned above as well as a new global trial which will introduce ‘belly tackles’ from 1 July 2023. This change will be implemented in the amateur game and see the height of tackles lowered to below the sternum.

The future of the game

In terms of the future of sport, it’s clear that World Rugby views player safety as a matter of paramount importance. The organisation has displayed an ongoing commitment to reducing risk at all levels of the game, and players and fans can expect to see further law changes in the coming years.

While fans eagerly look forward to upcoming matches and schedule their weekend around different rugby game times, the organisation will continue to ensure players are educated on the risks and take the necessary steps to safeguard their health.