Risky Business: How Hasty Decision-Making Puts English Rugby's Future at Risk

Insights Newsletter
24 February, 2023

Sound decision-making underpins sound businesses and sound organisations. Major changes must be well-considered.

So, what should we make of some arguably ill-considered changes in English Rugby?

The Rugby Football Union (RFU), English rugby’s governing body, recently published plans to lower the allowable tackle height in the amateur game to below the waist. This, predictably, led to much furore among players and fans alike who fear these changes fundamentally change the game.

On the face of it, the decision seems hasty. Or at least that’s how it is being perceived.

For example, the idea that forcing players to place their heads in the path of oncoming kneecaps is somehow safer than high tackles – which are already strictly regulated – has been widely ridiculed.

But even more baffling was the way in which the RFU reached its decision. It largely relied on a single study looking into the likelihood of injuries occurring during a tackle.

The Guardian pointed out that if the study’s suggestions were adopted fully, they would reduce head injuries by 8%. However, this number would be achieved only if the recommendations are perfectly implemented and we never see a high tackle ever again. That seems unlikely.

Concussions are serious – and especially if they happen repeatedly. There are too many heart-breaking stories of young former players who suffer from debilitating brain diseases due to their years of rugby. Current players obviously need protecting from this.  But the rule change rips up one of the core elements of the game with limited and dubious evidence it would even work.

Other changes have worked. Stricter concussion protocols and limits on contact training in the professional arena have both had a positive impact without fundamentally changing the game.

No one who sits on the RFU board is a current player. And no current players were consulted.

A cynic might wonder whether the rule change was designed to make the game safer, or just to seem as if they’re taking player welfare seriously enough to avoid getting sued.

At least when these kinds of decisions are taken in sport, the consequences are limited. If the RFU got it wrong, they’ll find out quickly enough from fans. Rugby in England is already in bad shape, with two professional clubs going under and dwindling participation at grassroots level. Should this decision compound their existing woes the RFU will doubtless reverse course.

Isn’t it a shame that poor policy decisions aren’t subject to such direct feedback.

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