It’s not about player safety

Zelím Nel

San Francisco rugby player Mark Bingham (pictured), died on September 11, 2001 trying to overwhelm the hijackers of Flight 93.

Measured against non-contact sports, rugby is not safe, and the only way to change that is to eliminate the contact elements from the game that make it rugby. For fans and players, a game where tickles replace tackles is unthinkable, but that’s exactly where the drive for safety is headed.

The agenda to “make rugby safe” has got far less to do with player safety than it has with tumbling a cultural pillar that celebrates masculinity.

It’s the same reason the USA’s most popular game, American Football (remember, the team sport we used to ridicule for arming it’s participants with too much protection?) is the target of a similar “safety” campaign. Just like driving a big bakkie, eating meat and drinking beer, playing rugby is now wrong… because “safety”.

Following a tackle that led to the tragic death of Nicolas Chauvin, a Stade Francais academy player, an editorial in French newspaper L’Equipe reportedly claimed that “rugby kills”.

This head-in-the-sand statement pays no heed to the simple gauge used by every human since the dawn of time to make daily decisions, namely probability. Many of the same folks demanding the game be made safer because “rugby kills” would be outraged by the assertion that “sharks kill”, and yet almost 450 people (that we know of) have been killed by sharks in unprovoked attacks over the past 60 years, while there have been almost 3000 reported attacks.

The probability of being eaten by a shark is extremely low and that’s why the World Surf League continues unabated. By participating in the sport, surfers are implicitly agreeing to the risk of being attacked by a shark.

The probability of being killed playing rugby is equally low, and that makes the global campaign to make the game safer somewhat suspicious. Rugby players should be inducted with a briefing of the risks, and every effort should be made to reduce those risks without altering the nature or balance of the contest.

Instead, World Rugby is being led by the nose in pursuit of “a safer game”, an objective that is conveniently open-ended and unquantified.

“For anyone to say that rugby kills… when you go to the shop, you could step out on the street and a bus hits you. That’s the equivalent of what happened,” Pau academy coach James Coughlan told RugbyPass in response to a call from Bernard Laporte, the unofficial boss of World Rugby, to lower the legal tackle height to the waistline.

“It’s extremely sad… but if we get caught up with it and start changing rules and laws and making decisions based on what’s happened… sometimes it’s just an accident. I think if we lose sight of that it’s a slippery slope.”

Civilisation was built on the back of brave men like Bingham who risked (and lost) their lives building a wall that protects the timid and the weak from invaders.

Where will the brave men of tomorrow come from if they grow up in a sanitised world where everything sharp is covered in bubble-wrap?

Maybe that’s the plan.

- Zelim Nel

Let's chat

  • Dean

    I agree, this all starts in North America and the rest of the World are following blindly. It’s everywhere, with safety clips and child lock caps on everything from food products to cleaning stuff. Special parking bays now for mother’s with children. Newer vehicles that now beep and the seats vibrate if another car or person is too near to you. People here that go to the doctor when they have a common cold. These same doctors that prescribe drugs for every little thing. People complain of insomnia or a back ache and are prescribed medical marijuana. Majority of the youth believe they have some sort of disorder like ADHD. And then I look around on the train and see 90% of the people on their phones paying no attention to what’s going on around them. Same as when they cross the street with earphones in and don’t even look up from the phone. I’m not sure how it is in South Africa but it’s like this where I am. In fact, South Africans would have good reason to live in fear yet most of them don’t. Here, it’s the opposite. Strange.

  • Nick

    Staggering…….utterly staggering.

  • Barry

    We had a fatality in Cape Town a few month back, which served as a reminder of the risks that there are in playing the game. Under the circumstances administrators would be remiss to not consider aspects of player safety, as a high priority!

    In saying that I do agree that there are many lobbyists that go well and beyond the line of reasonableness and the identity of the game needs to be protected. As with so many things in life, there is a fine balance that needs to be reached – a place where player safety is carefully considered together with the sports identity. I think most reasonable people would be happy in this space.

    Interestingly, on average one in four players is injured during a season, 25% are front row related and flankers and hookers are at the highest risk!

    I am all for the move to heavily penalize neck contact, but Laporte’s proposal of restricting tackles below the waist is really not thought through, for by doing so, you are causing the tacklers head to be closer to the attacking players feet and legs!

  • dbaggins

    Dankie Zelim

    Every generation has challenges. One of ours is the “weaponizing” of empathy and the rise of social justice warriors.
    The need to deconstruct everything for the sake of it and replace it with nothing…… welcome to the age of instant gratification, entitlement and prejudice. Everything that falls remotely under the realm of western masculinity (all sports/codes/male/female) are now answerable to the league idiotic social justice warriors that want to deconstruct a world to that of complete homogeneity.
    The art of trivializing facts and downgrading them to opinions and upgrading your own opinions and emotions into “facts”.

    The people who are pushing these agendas aren’t rugby people, they don’t care about the sport. They only care about gaining social traction and having power and changing things…… for better or worse is irrelevant. The more change they can initiate, the more power they will have ect.

    There is a whole generation of wimps out there …… best way for them to stay in power is to change this world to one where it is measured on their margins of success and failure

  • John Comyn

    Ironically just living in SA makes you a target for criminals intent on killing you. The murder rate in SA for 2018 stands at 20,336. How many players died on the field in SA in 2018??? Anyways by lowing the tackle to below the waist is not going to help. You can break your neck just as easily as making a tackle below the shoulders. It’s the head that is the problem and the rules have anything above the shoulders pretty much covered.

  • Phil

    I think the argument in this article is totally flawed by only considering player safety as it relates to the prevention of fatal injury. I think the push for player safety is actually not driven by trying to lower mortality rates on the field, well not primarily anyway.
    I think as science evolves, and our understanding of the long term effects of brain injuries and repeated concussions increase, we would be foolish and hugely irresponsible not to adapt the game to take into account this new information. The reason they want tackles to be lower, is to reduce the risk of head injury and not only to stop someone being killed. When compared to the NFL, players dying from and suffering from CTM is not a small % and exponentially bigger than the % found in general population. Why would you not want to change the game to mitigate that risk?
    Knowing the risk, and not doing anything about it is akin to continuing to use lead based paint in your baby’s room just because you like the colour.

    • Barry

      I am not sure that anyone would disagree with your sentiments at all, but it is a question of finding an acceptable balance in order that our sport is not sanitized by uncaring third parties who have agendas other than rugby at heart!

      As I have already pointed out, lowering the tackle would greatly decrease the risk factor for the attacking player for sure, but it would greatly increase the risk for the player making the tackle, because their head would be closer to the action. I think the current ruling of keeping below the shoulder is adequate- the consequence is beginning to sink in amongst players, along with aerial challenges, tip tackles snd the like. Progress is being made!

      • Phil

        I agree with you Barry, its all about getting the balance right. Nobody wants to see rugby turn into a tickling contest and we need to be smart about how we protect players. Personally, i’m happy with them vigorously policing any high tackles (above the shoulders) or contact with the head area, specially in ruck clean outs. Moving the tackle “high tackle line” lower could definitely have unintended consequences for the defender.
        I just think its important that people keep an open mind because as much as you get people who want to over police and over sanitize, you get people who are too far over to the other side.

        One other thing I’m 100% sure of is that we should never let people who are not involved with game of rugby, or have its best interest at heart make decisions about how the game is run. That would be a recipe for disaster.

  • Blokkies Joubert


    The game is not going soft, don’t worry, we are not scared people are dying on the field and whatnot.

    It is a pro game now. Players are assets, players are insured, players can choose to make money in rugby or football or basketball or rugby league or NFL or Aussie rules depending what their talents are.

    As a player you want to invest your short career in a sport where you don’t risk injury every time a guy tackles you hard. It costs you money.

    As a coach, you dont want your R 5 million a year asset to be taken out with a reckless move.

    Its the nature of a pro game. Not because the game is soft.

    Dont like it? Tough the game would have been dead by now if it didn’t go pro.

    What’s that? You Wish all sport was amatuer still? Stop spreading your anti-capitalist propoganda here you communist….

    • Blokkies Joubert

      And by takle hard I dont mean “Fair hard tackles” I mean tackle to intimidate and to injure like a classic dump/tip tackle.

  • Al

    The main problem is the players are getting bigger and bigger. If the so called rugby bosses would find a way to keep the ball in play longer ( I read somewhere that the ball is only in play about 40% of the match) then the platers emphasis would be less on bulk and size and more about cardio and mobility so therefore the hits would not be as hard. Sort out the scrums and line outs, find a way to let the breakdown flow more, award less penalties. That’s the way to sort it out.

Comments are closed.