The science behind the seismic tackle-height change and match limits coming to rugby league


What impact will new laws to lower the height of a legal tackle and to cap the number of games a player can play have on the sport?

THE very fabric of rugby league is set to change, but is it for the better?  

In December, it was announced that the RFL had accepted 44 recommendations from the sport’s Brain Health and Clinical Advisory Sub-Committee, which included the lowering of the tackle height down to armpit level. 

The law in its current state means tackles around shoulder height are legal; however, from this year amateur teams, academies and reserve grade sides will have to abide by the new laws, and in 2025 the same will be applied to elite teams. 

This new lowering of the tackle height is aimed at reducing direct head contact, and the man behind the study which helped provide these recommendations, Professor Ben Jones, has exclusively told Rugby League World that the new changes will see a ‘significant’ reduction in head contact. 

“The highest risk is contact with the ball carriers head, which is 1.2 per 1000 events,” he said. 

“If you removed all head contact, you’d probably remove about 20 to 30 per cent of overall concussions, which is significant.

“This isn’t a risk removal; this is a risk reduction. If people start doing things differently than they did before, there’s a chance that the risk may move somewhere else; and that’s where we have to then keep focusing on tackler behaviour as well as ball carrier behaviour.”

With the tackle height being at shoulder height, means that any tackle above this point would automatically make contact with the head, whereas a high tackle under the new laws would see contact being made at chest and shoulder height. 

This ‘grey’ area is often a tricky area to manage, but Professor Jones said the new laws will help to keep the flow of the game whilst also maintaining the head is protected. 

“Direct contact of the head gets sanctioned, it’s in the laws and it’s illegal,” he said. 

“But when you look at a game in slow motion through a fine tooth comb, you see a lot of tackles which will make contact with the shoulder and then slide up into the head. If the referee blew their whistle every time that happened, there’d be lots of penalties; and that’s a grey area.

“What we’re going to see now I think, is people aiming armpit and below. You’ll see the ball carrier change something before contact and you’ll see somebody mistime and hit in the chest. The head is completely protected and it creates a buffer between the head and the contact point.”

It isn’t just rugby league that is reducing the tackle height, with our cousins over in rugby union introducing a much lower tackle height in the community game. 

Back in January 2023, the RFU changed the legal tackle height from the shoulder down to the base of the sternum. This new change came into effect for clubs competing in National 2 and below (levels 4-12) from the start of this season. 

The RFU aren’t alone in this either. World Rugby endorsed trials in both France and South Africa showed a reduction of the tackle height did lead to fewer concussions and direct head on head contact. Furthermore, the trial in France led to increased participation in the grassroots game and saw a marked improvement on ball-in-play time as well. 

The change was initially met with anger within the rugby union community, but since the changes have been implemented this has died down and it has become a standard part of the grassroots game. 

Whilst the focus was instinctively on the reduction of the tackle height, another major part of the 44 recommendations accepted by the RFL was the introduction on the cap on minutes a player can play in a single season. 

Under the new recommendations, players will now have a cap of full game equivalent minutes (FGE), dependent on both age and position. This rule only applies to club fixtures, and international matches do not factor into a player’s FGE limit. 

This rule has been recommended in order to reduce the load on players at the pinnacle of the sport, which in turn would hopefully reduce the amount of ‘head accelerations’ a player experiences in a season. 

This cap may seem confusing at first, however any lot of 80 minutes equals just one FGE, so four 20-minute stints across four games would be the same as one full 80-minute match. 

A forward under the age of 18 will now have 15 FGE. A forward under the age of 22 will have 20 FGE and a forward over the age of 22 will have 25 FGE. 

In the backs, the FGE’s are higher. An 18-year-old or younger back would have 20 FGE, a back 22 or younger would have 25 FGE and a back over the age of 22 will have 30 FGE. 

Professor Jones explained just how much these new caps will reduce the load on players, which in turn limits the amount of brain injuries sustained. 

“At the moment, a small proportion of players play 30 full game equivalents or above, probably one or two per team.”

“It won’t make a huge change at population level, so everybody won’t be playing less. This initial full game equivalent limit is around safeguarding those players that are playing a lot of games each season and thinking about this in terms of workload, second season or five years, over 10 years, 15 years of career, and actually reducing those top end high exposures.

“These limits are in place to protect the players and the coaches.” 

This new cap is set over a 12 month period, however players will have an ‘overdraft’ they can dip into if necessary-for instance if they reached a Grand Final or a Challenge Cup Final and were already at their limit-however they would then be expected to miss more games the season after to make up for exceeding the limit. 

“There would be an overdraft on your limits. It’s over a rolling 12-month window which is always live. So practically, if a team is in finals and in play-off games, they realistically couldn’t have known that at the start of the season so couldn’t have rested people just in case,” said Professor Jones. 

“It may mean that a player then exceeds that limit going into a Grand Final, they may go over by one full game equivalent or a full eighty minutes; but ultimately what that means then is at the start of the next season that player needs to then reduce minutes.”

These changes will fundamentally alter the way rugby league is played in this country; however, it is clear they have been made to protect those playing it, and if they work it could secure the future of the sport for years to come.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)

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