World Rugby are edging away from the derided “nipple line” trial but believe the introduction of an off-field “High Tackle Warning” system may prove effective in lowering tackle heights, and reduce concussion rates in rugby.
In a unique twist, the retrospective system could even see a player punished for getting themselves concussed in a tackle-gone-wrong.
"What we are trying to do through a number of different processes is bring the tackle height down, to protect the more the tackler than the ball carrier," World Rugby chief medical officer Martin Raftery said.
"Yes we are trying to protect the ball carrier as well but the focus is more on the tackler.”
Led by Raftery, who is an Australian and a former Wallabies and Dragons team doctor, World Rugby has been pushing hard for the last five years to address the growing concerns about concussive head injuries to players.
After significantly toughening up the HIA protocols, World Rugby turned to preventing concussions and conducted a study in 2016 that reviewed 1516 professional matches dating to back between 2013 and 2015.
The study identified 611 concussion injuries, and each incident was analysed in detail. The ensuing data was used to identify the elements of rugby with most risk of sustaining a head injury.
Unsurprising, the tackle accounted for 75 per cent of the 611 concussions but somewhat suprisingly, it was the tackler - not the ball carrier - who was injured the most, by a substantial degree.
Of the 611, 335 concussions were suffered by the tackler and only 129 by the ball carrier.
Raftery and World Rugby scientist Ross Tucker broke down the risk factors further and it was found the most concussions occur when a tackler enters in an upright position - i.e not bending legs or waist - and it was determined that to lower the rates of concussion, lowering the tackle height in rugby was required.
Along with greater on-field sanctions, designed to change behaviour by punishing head contact in games, two trials were conducted at the World Under 20s championship in France in June.
One of them - making tackles above the “nipple” or armpit line illegal - earned worldwide headlines, and not many of them were complimentary.
In Sydney this week for World Rugby meetings, Raftery said the first nipple line trial was designed to test whether it was “logistically” feasible for referees.
And after mostly negative feedback from the whistleblowers from the tournament, a second trial will occur in lower level English rugby but it appears the nipple/armpit line push is not set to go any further.
“They said it was very difficult to do on on the ground, just to actually identify those high tackles consistently,” Raftery said.
“It’s very difficult, hopefully it will have an impact but we don’t know if it will because it’s just too difficult to implement.”
Raftery and his team believe the High Tackle Warning system may be a way to change player behaviour and drop their body height while tackling.
Though lost amid the nipple line hubbub, the HTW was announced and trialled during the World Under 20s Championship as well and - allied with referees using tough on-field sanctions - the number concussions at the tournament fell by 50 per cent from the previous two years.
“Eleven people got a warning but no-one got a penalty - and a penalty would happen if you got two High Tackle Warnings,” Raftery said.
“The positive thing we found was the number of concussions in the 2018 tournament, compared to the previous two tournaments, was positive because it reduced by 50 per cent.
“It’s not stastically relevant (due to small sample size) but its heading in the right direction. I’d rather see 50 percent going down than 50per cent going up.
“When we look back on it, because there wasn’t any loss of time with the players, there was a lot of education that went on.
“That, combined with the strengthening of the sanctions, were major contributors as well. Education is a massive part of what we are trying to do.”
Knowing any HTW system would be challenged at a judicial level, World Rugby admit they'll need at least another year of research and study before determining a definition of an illegal upright tackle.
Raftery and Tucker have been giving their roadshow on the 611 concussion study to players, and though various media outlets, for the last year, hoping to change people’s misconceptions by relaying the data, and the reasons behind subsequent trials and recommendations.
Though high tackle sanctions in games are still reasonably infrequent, recent red cards for shoulder on head contact in England have caused massive controveries. Ex-players and coaches have bemoaned the game “going soft”.
Raftery says while it appears such sanctions are protecting the ball carrier, in effect they’re trying to save tacklers from themselves.
“The tackle is the phase of the game that causes most concussive injuries, and then it is the tackler - not the ball carrier - who is most at risk,” he said.
Raftery, a former Sharks player who played in the 1978 NSWRL Grand Final, says the criticism that comes with his initiatives to lower tackle heights - and thus concussions - doesn't worry him.
He said if change can be crafted at the elite level, lower levels traditionally follow suit.
“You have to remain tough. You get criticised if you do (something) and you get criticised if you don’t. Our objective is to protect the player. We are trying to do it with evidence behind it, not making rash decisions,” he said.
“It seems quote logical - lower the tackle and you are going to reduce the number of head injuries. That’s not rocket science. If it sounds sensible and is backed by research, then we should be doing it.
“The measure (of success) for us is a reduction in concussion rates. We want to see them start to come down. For the first five years we have spent a lot of time ensuring the platers are protected by ensuring they are removed from the field when they should be removed, and are not allowed to go back too early.
“Now we are about trying to prevent them.
“Awareness has seen the concussion rates go up, hopefully we have seen them stabilise and now start to come back down. Success will be starting to see that curve go back down again.”