Rugby Australia sets 'below-the-sternum' tackle trial for '24

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Rugby Australia (RA) has taken another step in its bid to make the game safer, enacting a two-year "below-the-sternum" tackle trial for community rugby that is in line with other international unions around the world.

RA on Friday announced the trial, which will extend to all forms of the game below Super Rugby level, including Premier grade [Shute Shield and Hospital Cup], school and club competitions, and their associated pathways, that commence after Feb. 14 next year.

The current legal tackle height for Super and Test rugby is below the shoulder.

The game's governing body, World Rugby, has in recent years conducted multiple studies into head contact and concussion, with data revealing that the risk of suffering a concussions is 4.2 times higher when the tackler's head is above the ball carrier's sternum.

As part of the trial, referees will also be asked to focus their attention on the ball-carrier dipping into the defensive line, which makes it more difficult for the defending player to make a legal tackle. That, however, does not apply to a "pick-and-go" carry, where ball-carriers are generally already in a low position in and around the ruck.

Trials of lower tackling heights have already taken place in France, England, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Preliminary data from a similar trial in South Africa has shown a 30 percent reduction in concussions, while France recorded a 64 percent reduction in head-on-head contact - as well as a 14 percent increase in participation on pre-COVID levels.

"Research from around the world has clearly identified safety as the number one issue preventing fans and potential players from taking up the game," RA chief executive Phil Waugh said via a statement.

"Obviously it is impossible to remove all risk from the game, however we firmly believe that promoting safer tackle techniques, and reducing the risk of head contact and concussion will lead to an even safer game. I am confident our players and coaches at all levels of the game will continue to work on safe and effective tackle technique.

"This is firmly in the best interests of the game, however there may be an adjustment period for players and match officials, and I would ask for patience and respect between all parties as we embark on this journey.

"In the French trial, they saw a significant increase in penalties in the first year of the trial, followed by a substantial drop in those numbers over the next two years as players and officials adjusted to the new measures.

"We will continue to ensure that any decisions that have the potential to impact the game are driven by research and evidence that prioritise player safety."

Unlike England's Rugby Football Union, which announced its own community rugby tackling trial after little consultation with its stakeholders, RA will take a far more collaborative approach to instigating next year's trial.

While some push back will be inevitable, RA says it will implement "extensive stakeholder engagement, and educational program for players, parents, administrators, coaches, and match officials."

"We have been engaged with our Member Unions, coaches, match officials, administrators, and medical professionals since March, when we first signalled our intent to participate in the global law trial - and that consultation has informed the implementation in Australia," Michael Procajlo, Rugby Australia's General Manager of Community Rugby, said.

"The research undertaken by World Rugby to date has shown there are three different risk zones for tackling.

"The green zone encompasses the ball carrier's torso from the sternum to the hips - this is the safest zone to tackle. Statistically, there is a little more risk once the tackle drops below the hips - hence it becomes amber. However, the greatest risk is present when tackles go above the sternum line and there is a higher risk of head-on-head or head-on-shoulder contact.

"Training and education will remain a strong focus for RA and the State and Territory Unions. We will roll out additional face-to-face coach education sessions and an eLearning course, game management guidelines for coaches and match officials, webinars for clubs and schools, and a range of online resources to assist with the change."

Australian tackle expert and dual NRL and Super Rugby winner Peter Ryan told ESPN earlier this year he was fully supportive of the drop in legal tackle height.

"I'm all for it. Nobody's perfect, we all know that. But if my players aren't making centre-of-gravity tackles, which is well below sternum height, the bottom third of the ball is what I want my players to aim for because that is roughly your belly button; if they do that there is no jeopardy for the player carrying the ball and there is no jeopardy for the player making the tackle," Ryan said.