The sight of World Cup hero, Steve Thompson, talking openly about the effect a career in the game has had on his long-term mental health has been eye-opening and distressing.
The game we love is facing challenges, and steps to make the game safer for all participants are surely to be welcomed by everyone involved with the sport.
Since originally being announced by World Rugby in July 2021, and subsequently implemented in May 2022, the new welfare plan has had a significant impact on the game.
Read on to find out more about the five law changes that are now in force this season, and the effect they are having on the game in terms of both player safety, and making the game more entertaining.
The new law changes are part of a wider process
It is important to make clear up front that these five law changes are steps in a longer journey, rather than an end in themselves.
For example, you will be aware that far more stringent head injury assessment protocols have been introduced, and there is also new guidance on the limits to contact training between games.
There is increasing encouragement for teams to use “smart” mouthguards to monitor the frequency and intensity of head impacts on players during the game.
At the recent World Cup in New Zealand, the saliva of players was tested to help improve understanding of the effect of head impact and concussion.
World Rugby have also confirmed a big spending commitment for research into retired player health and making the game safer.
All those steps are in addition to the recent law changes.
1. The “50:22” kick to touch
The aim of the new 50:22 law is to force players to drop deeper in the defensive line to defend against, or discourage, such a kick.
By pushing defending players deeper, the aim is to create more space for attacks to develop in midfield. A successful kick also creates an excellent attacking platform inside the 22 of your opponents.
The new law has certainly added an interesting tactical twist to the game. There is now a tendency for teams to defend deeper when back in their own half, creating space in midfield as the defence is spread, and out wide as players set deeper to protect against the kick.
2. Drop-out from the in-goal area
A drop-out, rather than a scrum, if there is an attacking knock-on, or if an attacking kick is grounded by the defensive side in the in-goal area, is a clear safety move designed to reduce the number of scrums during a game.
It can also reward effective goal-line defence and encourage defending teams to counterattack through an effective drop-out.
The possibility of being held up over the line and losing possession, even if only temporarily, means that attacking teams have had to be more skilled with pick-and-drive moves as they look for an opening.
3. Limits on pods of players
Different iterations of the “flying wedge” have long been a controversial tactic, so the outlawing of “pods” of three or more players was probably the least surprising of the law changes introduced.
The aim is clearly to encourage teams to open up play and move the ball out wide, rather than simply focus on endless, confrontational hard hits in midfield.
4. Outlawing the lower-limb clear-out
Players who deliberately drop their weight onto the lower limbs of a defending player trying to “jackal” the ball at the breakdown are now being penalised.
Steps to help open up the game through more rigorous policing of the breakdown are surely a good thing. Rugby social media sites are often filled with wince-inducing clips of dangerous and cynical play by players ostensibly clearing out at a ruck.
By starting to restrict specific examples of foul play at the breakdown, World Rugby are looking to make the game safer, and give the defending tackler a better chance of gaining possession and helping keep the ball in play.
5. Tightening the law relating to latching
While one-player latching at a ruck is still permitted, the latching player has to stay on their feet and avoid side entry, in the same way as the player first over the ball.
Again, this law change seems to have opened up the game, kept the ball in play, and encouraged defenders to target the ball rather than slowing the game down.
The reduction in the number of collapsed rucks, deliberately or otherwise, has been noticeable. That is a positive from both a safety and spectacle point of view.
Rugby is becoming safer, but more work is needed
The game is not going to change overnight, and the law changes outlined here are clearly not designed to do that.
An increased awareness of player safety does mean that referees are now quicker to penalise dangerous play than they may have previously been. Many high tackles that may have formerly been seen as marginal are being whistled, rather than being given the benefit of the doubt.
It also seems to be the case that referees are awarding more free-kicks to the attacking side after a couple of scrum resets, rather than continually insisting players go into a new scrum, with all the physical impact that can have on front-rows.
Most sports carry an element of risk for participants. When it comes to rugby, the key is balancing the physical aspect that has been at the core of the sport for so long, while improving safety and lessening the chances of serious, long-lasting injury that can affect the future welfare of players.
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