It appears that there is a growing concern amongst many coaches, especially in the Premiership, that the new laws changes being trialled this season in the northern hemisphere, principally designed to make the game easier to play and to referee as well as to safeguard the well-being of players, simply aren’t having the desired effect.
Or at least one in particular isn’t.
Worse still, it would seem that this is one of the main reasons why many of the top clubs are already experiencing far more injuries than they would expect so early in the season.
I should add at this point that this comes from an article in ‘The Times’ last week and not from anything Rowland Winter or the Cov coaches have said. There’s nothing original in this as far as my own input is concerned, but I do think it might be of interest given that it does throw some light on why so many of the top players are getting injured.
The main concern, it would appear, centres around:
4. Law 15.4 (c)
The tackler must get up before playing the ball and then can only play from their own side of the tackle ‘gate’.
(To make this a little clearer, I’ve included an explanatory video from England Rugby’s ‘Keep Your Boots On’ webpage – although the initial commentary is in Italian, the accompanying comments across the screen make it obvious how the new law works.)
The problem, it appears, is that as a result of the introduction of this change to the law, there is now less opportunity this season for the tackler to effectively complete for the ball at the initial tackle as he is now required to re-enter through the area behind his side of the where the breakdown has occurred. Previously he had only to remain, or return, to his feet.
The success, or otherwise, of the change in this law depends very much on which side of the fence…or in this case ‘gate’…that you are on.
Side 1 – The idea behind the change is sound…with less opportunity for the defending side to win the ball at the breakdown, the attacking side can recycle the ball far more easily, in theory making for a more flowing game, and therefore one more appealing to the spectators.
As a result of the change, the ball stays in play more, the team in possession has more attacking options and the game becomes more enjoyable as a spectacle. With less heavy contact at the breakdown too, a result of the tackler being less at risk given he has to make that initial movement to return back to behind the tackle gate, there should also be fewer injuries occurring in this phase of the game.
Side 2 – However, in some respects the change in the law has been too successful because by keeping the ball in play longer than before and because the ball is going through far more phases, the numbers of actual tackles being made is also increasing…and by a significant percentage.
And the problems with this is that it is the tackle itself, and not the breakdown, where the most injuries occur and because the numbers of tackles being made in the course of game is on the up, so are the number of injuries.
So a law designed to protect the player, as well as help the referee, is inadvertently putting the players more at risk.
And the statistics would seem to support that.
According to the article in The Times, last week, Harlequins were missing 25 injured players, Gloucester had 15 players unavailable through injury and Wasps had only 24 players to select a 23 man squad from for their game against Bath.
Whilst this isn’t in itself evidence that the recent changes to the laws are responsible, it appears that the number of tackles, or contacts, in the first few games really is on the increase…and by a considerable amount.
In the same article, Dai Young, Director of Rugby at Wasps, a club that has suffered more from injuries than most this season, says:
We’ve spent a bit of time looking at how the game has changed and this season there have been at least 50 more contacts in the game than there had been previously
and that means the players are definitely being put more at risk.
And it’s not just the sheer number of contacts that is causing the problem. With the ball in play longer, players are having to work that much harder and as a result are more fatigued as the game goes on. And the more tired your body is, the more prone to injury you become.
John Kingston, the Harlequins DoR, suggests that his side has seen 15% more collisions during the course of a game this season than last and many of the injuries his side has suffered are what he terms trauma injuries, the result of tackling:
The ball is in play longer than it has been…if people are fatiguing, then you’re going to get injuries
John Westerby, the writer of the article, makes the point that:
…studies show that the tackler is the player most at risk in the game and the more tackles being made, as teams take contact, recycle possession and batter at the defensive door time and time again
He quotes Joe Launchbury recently as making 27 tackles during the course of a match and Sione Kalamafoni, the Leicester No 8 as completing 8o tackles in the opening five games of the season.
Small wonder, then, that the injury toll is mounting.
Obviously, I have nothing to compare these stats with in terms of Coventry, but I guess it’s fair to assume that although the numbers might not be the same, the underlying trend probably is.
Although we’ve not had too many players out thus far this season, perhaps the increase in the number of contacts expected of players is resulting in players more likely to be injured, even if they might not all be the result of direct contact – is the fatigue which Kingston talked about a factor, potential or otherwise?
Or maybe the game at National One level isn’t played with quite the same physicality as in the Premiership and therefore it’s not quite the issue…?
There’s probably is some truth in that BUT players at this level won’t be as fit or have the strength and resilience to take some of the hits we’ve see even already this season – if there are now going to be even more in a game as a result of the law changes then we can expect some resultant increase in the number of injuries. Several opposition players have felt the force of a Tuitupou tackle already and one or two have been slow to get back up on their feet.
Dai Young suggests that it’s ‘the backs and centres’ who are most at risk under these new rule changes, citing the view again that it’s much harder to win turnover ball now, so because the opposition are keeping the ball longer his players are committed to making more tackles.
Last week I wrote a post looking at the effectiveness or otherwise of the box kick, a subject that has caused some interesting discussions amongst Coventry supporters in the past as it is something Cov has tended to use when defending deep.
Because of the change to Law 15.4 (c), Young suggests that even Saracens have had to adapt the way they play:
their kicking game is second to none, but they’re keeping the ball for long periods. They don’t kick half as much as they used to
He doesn’t explain why, but the implication is that because the tackler now has to return to his own side of the ‘gate’ before he can play the ball, the tactic is no longer as effective because the opposition now has more time to recycle.
Now it might just be the result of having read this article, but I’m not convinced we have kicked as much in the three league games I’ve watched so far this season…?
The final section of Westerby’s article focuses on another reason why Premiership clubs in particular are struggling to cope with the apparent sudden upsurge in the number of injuries – the financial constraints imposed on them by the £7m salary cap (I know, my heart bleeds for them, too).
Given the cap will remain at that level until the end 2020, in order to attract the very best players who demand the very top salaries, clubs have reduced the size of their squads accordingly. It’s a problem that is going to only get worse and with the increased demands on squads resulting from A league fixtures, already some clubs, like Wasps, seem at breaking point.
Law 15.4 (c) clearly isn’t helping here either.
I also mentioned in a post last week the calling off of Wasps’ A League game, the result of a lack of an available ambulance (which perhaps now takes on greater significance following reading Westerby’s article). However, it also appears that three other fixtures have had to be cancelled already this season because of a ‘lack of fit players’.
Indeed, Harlequins were so affected by injuries last week that they invited fellow Premiership neighbours London Irish to train with them to provide each other with ‘meaningful opposition’.
There appears to be real unease amongst the top clubs at the moment because of the sheer number of injuries they are experiencing so early on in the rugby calendar. This should be the time in the season when most players are at their fittest and they certainly shouldn’t be suffering unduly from any sort of fatigue, as referenced by Kingston.
Rowland Winter mentioned in training last week that already one or two teams in our league have been playing key members of their squads for every minute of every game. Irrespective of the change in the laws and the possible impact on player welfare that is having, that is going to result in players being far less effective the longer the season goes on.
Last season RW quote a figure relating to the percentage playing time he feels is the optimum over x number of games. I can’t remember what the actual figure was, but he did say that after so many minutes of play over so many weeks, players will cease to perform at the same level and there will be a reduction in their effectiveness.
The need to rest players and therefore to have a playing squad big enough to allow that, seems vital, and no matter how good our conditioning and rehab teams are, there are always going to be injuries. We’ve seen RW rotate the front and back rows already and you’d expect to see more of this in the coming weeks so that when we hit that period of five weeks before Christmas when we face probably the hardest run of games all season, players are as fit and fresh as you could expect them to be given the games we’ve already played. We are fortunate to have so much strength in depth and it might well be that there on occasions we’ll be very grateful for it.
How relevant today’s post is to Cov is something that’s open to discussion, but at the very least it is interesting to see how just a small change in one of the laws of the game, meant as a genuine attempt to improve the game as a spectacle, has apparently caused some concern over its impact on the well-being of the players.
Early days still this season, but it’s worth looking to see if there is any further evidence as the season progresses to suggest that the tweaking of Law 15.4 (c) really is responsible for an increased incidence of player injury as many of the Premiership DoRs are currently suggesting..