Stronger, faster and increasingly powerful players are a concern for the sport. The governing body, World Rugby, shares those fears and is trying to do something about it. The first step is to conduct trials in several areas and to assess their impact before deciding whether to make the changes permanent.     

The main goal is to prevent injury, but there are also experimental measures to liven up the game. According to World Rugby Chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont, there has been a reduction in the number of concussions in elite competitions. However, the focus remains on further lowering them, and cutting injuries at all levels of the game.

“At the centre of this approach is the tackle, which is responsible for 50 per cent of all match injuries and 76 per cent of all concussions (72 per cent occurring to the tackler)”, explained Beaumont. “This is in part driven by an increase of ball in play time by 50 per cent since the 1987 Rugby World Cup to approximately 40 minutes today. This has given rise to a 252 per cent increase in tackles over the same period, which is why we are so focused on this area.”

Among the experiments targeting higher entertainment levels is a change concerning clearance kicks. It aims to create extra space for the attacking side. A team clearing the ball will have the throw in at the lineout if the kick goes indirectly into touch. The aim is to force defenders to cover back rather than apply pressure in opposition territory. While this looks like a sensible way to open up the game, the risk appears to be an increase in the amount of kicking.

A plan to reduce the number of substitutions also aims to increase scoring opportunities as players tire. World Rugby will conduct more research into the impact on player welfare. The danger is that players will remain on the pitch when not fully fit and will therefore risk exacerbating injuries.

A particularly contentious area is the ruck. The proposed change will force players to move away from the ball without delay. Implementing the rule as intended will mean the attacking side should have more time to build attacks. The risk is that referees will have trouble applying the rule correctly. World Rugby plans to carry out more work into all aspects of the ruck and the laws surrounding it.   

With safety in mind, a key move is the proposal to lower the height of tackles. Banning everything above waist level should reduce the risk of head injuries to both the tackler and the tackled player. This appears to be a sensible move that should be positive for player welfare.

Another trial change will be the ability to upgrade a yellow card to a red during a match. If a player is sent to the sin bin for foul play, the offence can be reviewed during the ten minute spell on the sidelines. The referee may decide to prevent the player from returning if replays justify a red card.       

Other changes are also under discussion. It is right that the governing body should look at ways to make the game more entertaining to watch and play. It’s also right that player safety should be the main consideration.

But, before World Rugby makes any final decision, it should consider a couple of things. First, smart coaches will work out ways to bend the rules. So, changes must avoid being open to manipulation. Second, too many amendments run the risk of altering the game too much. There’s nothing guaranteed to turn spectators off more quickly than making rugby too difficult to follow.

Written by Colin Renton