Rugby league could see “big influx” of new players from rugby union

James Gordon
tackle height laws could change

Picture by Allan McKenzie/

The controversial changes surrounding tackle-height in rugby union could cause a mass exodus of players to rugby league, it has been suggested in Parliament.

From next season, the RFU are lowering the tackle height to waist level at all levels below the Premiership and Championship.

It comes amidst an ongoing legal challenge from former players about head injuries and other illnesses that they say were caused by playing the game.

A big influx of new players

Since its announcement, rugby union fans and players have generally been opposed to the move.

MP Stephen Crabb addressed the House of Commons Speaker, the new RFL president Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

He said: “I suspect your form of the game, Mr Speaker, is going to see a big influx of new players as the English Rugby Football Union seeks to rewrite the rules of the union game.

“So, could I ask the minister if he agrees with me that, given that 75,000 players, coaches, supporters of the union game have already signed a petition rejecting the new rules, does he agree with me that the RFU should think again, should work more collaboratively with the grassroots across all home nations and ensure all steps taken to improve player safety are consistent, workable and don’t lead to a player exodus?”

Both codes of rugby have been moving to improve player welfare and safety, particularly around concussions and head injury.

Will rugby league follow the RFU’s lead?

Should the change be enforced in rugby union, then there are some that believe rugby league will soon follow.

So far, the RFL have remained tight-lipped about the situation. They have gained credit for their approach towards safety and player welfare in recent years, particularly around the COVID return to play protocols.

The legal challenge from past players remains a cloud over the game, with the financial repercussions as yet unknown.

Insurance premiums across the sport have increased significantly in recent years.

Sports minister Stuart Andrew said he will raise concerns highlighted by MPs when he next meets the RFU.

Andrew said: “(Mr Crabb) raises a very important point and a number of colleagues have already raised this with me.

“As he’ll be aware, of course, national governing bodies such as the RFU are responsible for the regulation of their sports and ensuring that appropriate measures are in place to protect participants from harm and serious injuries.

“I can assure (Mr Crabb) that we continue to work with sports, and that includes the RFU, to ensure that player safety is prioritised and I will certainly raise the points he has raised in my next meeting with them.”

Is a u-turn from the RFU likely amidst dissent from clubs?

A number of players have highlighted concussions received from tackling low, but as things stand, the legal tackle height in rugby union will be lowered to the waist from next season.

Given the timing of the two code’s seasons, it may be that if a change is on the horizon for rugby league, that it would be implemented for 2024.

It may be a case of waiting to see just what impact the RFU’s move does have, that is of course if it does go ahead.

Despite the move being unanimously approved by RFU council members to support player welfare, many union clubs are angered at the lack of consultation.

A newspaper report suggests more than 200 clubs have joined forces to call for a special general meeting of the RFU.

An RFU statement said: “We understand the rugby community has a range of questions in reaction to the recent announcement that the tackle height is to be lowered across the community game from next season.

“We recognise the change is challenging, and the community game has understandably provided significant feedback on the change.

“However, the large body of scientific evidence strongly indicates that it will reduce the incidence of head injuries in the community game.”

PLANET RUGBY: Taking a closer look at the great tackle height debate

Opinion: Will a mass exodus really happen?

This story still has plenty to go before a clear picture will emerge. It seems unlikely that a mass exodus of union players to league will happen, or indeed if rugby league is equipped to welcome large quantities of new players.

From a rugby league point of view, it would of course be an almost dream scenario to have significant numbers of participants wanting to play the game.

But it seems unlikely that if the RFU are going down this road, that it hasn’t at least been put on the table for the RFL to consider, particularly as the 13-man code is even more vulnerable to the legal challenge of former players in terms of finances.

Given the timeframe, and the fact there is still six months until the change comes in to force, means there is still plenty of time to be changes or indeed a u-turn on the proposal.

If the RFU do stand firm, it will be interesting then to see just whether the RFL follow suit – or if they will all of a sudden have opportunities to hoover up thousands of disgruntled community rugby union players across the country ahead of the next winter season.

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