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Head contact is an issue for administrators, not referees

The judicial process for head contact in rugby has become a real blight on the sport.

We now have long and constant delays while referees are expected to act as doctors, scrutinising differences of millimetres on scratchy stadium screens. The wait for footage can sometimes be excruciating, and right at important moments in the game.

Some teams are taking a huge advantage from this, clearly using deliberate delaying tactics that suit their game plan. These opportunities to rest are only being fostered by the sensitivity to injured players.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the crackdown is the fine line drawn between accidental and incidental. Under the current process, if a player carrying the ball falls and cracks their head on an opposition player’s knee, no refereeing action will be taken. It’s simply called an unfortunate accident.

Yet if virtually the same incident happens with an attacking player falling and collecting a loose hand or forearm of a defender that was otherwise not going to be anywhere near the player’s head, it is called non-malicious but will still attract a penalty or card. If both are accidental, why are they adjudicated differently?

Regardless of your opinion on concussion protocols, it seems most spectators agree that constant stoppages in rugby due to potential card incidents are affecting the final product. Whether you’re a purist who loves slow, attritional rugby or an occasional viewer who catches the odd exciting Test match, no-one wants these extended delays or to watch our best players sitting in the naughty chair or in the stands.

There are constant arguments from punters and commentators over the subject. It seems there are two veins to these debates. The first is based on the on-field translation of current laws. There is a process that referees must take in order to answer this question. Like any refereeing decision, this is bound to come under scrutiny. Nothing new to see here.

The second angle seems more integral to resolving the issue: whether the laws themselves are correct. This argument is not one that players, coaches, commentators or regular punters are qualified to make. This is for doctors and lawyers to debate.

The reason head contact sensitivity has become such a beast of a subject is due to multiple sports around the globe being taken to court over alleged lack of care for players leading to long-term health conditions. It seems rugby union as a sport has decided it needs to show a high level of care for its players on the field to mitigate potential health issues, thereby reducing lawsuits down the track. This level of care is refreshing, but the policy between accidental and incidental is unclear, and therefore the actions by referees and judiciaries are not guaranteed to safeguard the sport from courtroom trouble.

And this is where the general punter arguing over the merits of these laws is a waste of time. I am an avid watcher of the game and certainly no doctor or lawyer, yet these two professions will most likely be the ones to decide the fate of the players’ demands and the protection of the game. To me the real debate and the ultimate statement of policy must come from the top. The administrators must decide on the level of sensitivity, as they are the ones who can sift through the expert judgment.

If I were a rugby administrator. I would be asking a simple question: where does the onus of the player being involved in a contact sport end and rugby’s commitment to safety begin? For all they know, even the current crackdown on head contact may not be enough. Ex-players may still take the sport to court and win lawsuits.

I recently heard a commentator stating that even though players are on the rugby field, they are still bound to local laws. Yet if this is true, how is tackling someone – legally by rugby rules – seen to be okay? If you were to smash someone with a tackle – again, a legal version by rugby’s laws – in public, wouldn’t that be assault?

My point is that things happen on a rugby field that are not accepted elsewhere, and that’s part of what makes the game so great. It’s the closest thing we get to our barbaric past of hand-to-hand battles.

I am certainly not saying we don’t take head contact seriously, the after-effects for players after years of rugby and multiple concussions are awful. I should know, I am one of them. However a clearer line in the sand needs to be drawn about the policy from the administration. And surely there must be some onus on the player to recognise they are deliberately entering an arena in a high contact sport, especially if they are given thorough education on the dangers of their employment.

So where is this line in the sand? I am not the one to make the judgement, nor are most of the rest of us. Yet we can comment on the game itself and how we are all aggrieved with its current process.

Rugby bosses need to figure out where they stand legally, because the game and its fans are suffering because of it.

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