Andrew Gourdie: Has rugby crossed the 'nipple' line?

Opinion 27/05/2018
Photo credit: File.

OPINION: News that World Rugby is to trial two new tackle laws at the upcoming World Rugby U20 Championship and U20 Trophy hasn't gone down well with fans and former players.

The laws will see the acceptable height of the tackle lowered to 'below the nipple line'.

The game, they say, has gone mad.

Which is kind of ironic when you consider the very reason the change has been made. The tackle line has been lowered in the hope of reducing concussion statistics.

"But how will players make an effective tackle?" The critics say. "How will the referees police it? How will they know where nipple line is?"

Well it's a darn sight easier for a referee to guess where a player's nipple line sits, than it is for a doctor to diagnose CTE.

CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a neurodegenerative disorder. It's caused by repeated blows to the head, but often doesn't reveal itself until years after those initial concussions were suffered. Its symptoms include mood swings, behavioural problems and mental health issues. It's common in boxers, NFL players and rugby players, and the reason it's so hard to identify is because it can only be definitively diagnosed during autopsy.

If that doesn't make you stop giggling like an immature schoolboy over the sight of the phrase "nipple line", then maybe news of your favourite rugby hero committing suicide will.

That's what the NFL has had to deal with over the years, with several former players taking their own lives by very specific means - a gunshot to the chest - in order to preserve their brains so that autopsy can prove the problems they were experiencing. Their hope was that if statistics showed that players had developed these problems as a result of repeated concussions suffered during their playing careers, then the NFL would eventually have to take the issue seriously and acknowledge the link between the game, and the disease that would go on to ruin their lives.

It worked, and now not only has the NFL taken steps to protect players from the effects of concussion, but it's still grappling with a lawsuit brought by thousands of former players which will ultimately cost more than a billion dollars.

It's a cautionary tale for rugby officials to heed, and these rule changes indicate it's one they've taken on board. They have to. Not only because the game can ill-afford a billion-dollar lawsuit, but because the game has a responsibility to care for its players, and reduce the risks associated with the tackle.

The change won't ruin the game. In fact in a way, it might improve it. If the tackle line is lowered, the reasonable conclusion is that tackles will be harder to complete, the ball carrier's arms will be free, resulting in more offloads and therefore more tries. Is that really a bad thing?

The only line the game has crossed is the one which sees it taking the issue of concussion seriously. And the five minutes of ridicule the game might endure over having to add the words "nipple line" to its laws, is well worth it if it saves even one player from the devastating effects of CTE.

That possibility should be good enough reason for you and I to accept the change.

Andrew Gourdie is a sports reporter/presenter and host of RadioLIVE's Sunday Sport from 2pm.