29 May 2018

Rugby's ‘nipple law’ not such a laughing matter

3:33 pm on 29 May 2018

Opinion - If there's one thing that you can count on in a local rugby club, changing room or field, it's bad jokes.

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Photo: Supplied / Lisa Scott

It's usually because it's the one time of the week where you're around a large bunch of guys who are in a good mood, so it's a great time to throw out a terrible one-liner or pun to a mostly sympathetic audience.

I'm talking the lamest and most hackneyed of humour. Suggesting calling the game off after five minutes so we can go have a beer, farting in the scrum, or making reference to some rugby joke that's dated horribly.

Now we're all going to put up another one that will get old faster than the guys on the park are. This week the bosses of the game have announced that they're going to be trialling a measure aimed at reducing high tackles, by lowering the acceptable level of contact to the line of the ball-carrier's nipples.

The reaction, thanks to social media, has been predictable. Bemusement mainly, but also more fuel for the folks that think that rugby is going soft.

Plus plenty of attempts at humour, because nipples in the context of rugby are, well, kind of funny. Especially when you're playing with a bunch of old blokes concerned about the toll gravity is taking on that part of their anatomy.

But this is the part of the story where it's not so laughable anymore.

Forget player drain to the Northern Hemisphere, dodgy World Cup qualification or how an English test side can hemorrhage 63 points to a glorified pub team. The biggest issue facing rugby right now is concussion, and the 'nipple law' is at least some way of addressing it.

Getting concussed is no fun. I know, because it's happened to me more than a few times in the 25 years I've been playing.

I stopped counting after a while, but if I had to guess it'd be somewhere around a dozen.

They've all been different - sometimes you see stars, sometimes you just go to sleep straight away and wake up as if nothing happened. The worst one didn't even affect me at the time of the hit, but it led to me feeling like I had a hangover for the next two months.

Getting a scan on your head is even less fun. You have a lot of time in a hospital waiting room and MRI chamber to wonder just how bad the last painful blow was and what the image of your brain will show up.

And I'm not alone. Concussions are taking top level players out of the game more often, and sometimes for good.

This is because of the heightened precautions that are in place, and a less macho attitude about admitting that you've had your bell rung. If anything, the amount of guys sitting out for concussions is a positive thing, because the people most affected by it are taking it seriously.

World Rugby conducted a study of 1500 games, and found that 76 percent of head knocks occur due to tackles. This is why this rule is getting trialled, plain and simple, even if it may sound like a gradual descent into removing tackling altogether.

The onus is definitely on World Rugby to at least look like they're doing something to stop players clocking each other in the head, given that all of sudden that wasn't a big deal when the Lions/All Black series was on the line last year.

Penalising players for tackling around the upper chest does come with an inherent set of challenges, though. It's an added task to the already incredibly difficult job of being a referee, and makes it harder for bigger players to legally tackle smaller ones.

But World Rugby at least need to try and see if it works. Black eyes and ruck marks look cool, and we can all have a laugh about them in the changing shed after the final whistle gets blown. But sitting next to a guy that doesn't know how he got to the park, or is about to vomit because of a head high tackle isn't that funny at all.

It's worth noting that this measure is very much a trial, not only confined to one age grade but a single tournament - the World Under 20s Championship.

World rugby routinely uses university tournaments to give some of the stranger rule variations a go, like bonus points for long range tries and reduced or heightened policing of breakdown infringements.

This is a slightly higher profile stage to debut a law like this, though - hopefully a profile that the issue they're trying to address needs.

So while we all make bad jokes about the 'nipple law', it's worth remembering that the reason they're trying it is because of something that's very serious. Maybe even deadly serious.

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