Whilst I am not what could be described as a follower of rugby union, the upcoming six nations tournament will be launched with predictable fanfare and, in all fairness, large crowds and high levels of public interest.
What will put this tournament under scrutiny is not the players but the officials. World rugby has decreed that head hits are to be dealt with more severely in response to the concern over the short and long term consequences of head injuries. Domestic rugby has already seen the impact.
Via the medium of the internet, the recent dismissals of players in domestic rugby union can be scrutinised and the extremely difficult job of refereeing should be given greater respect as it has just got even harder. The issue is that tackles that would previously not even have been punished may now result in a red card. The rugby union system permits the match officials to see incidents from different angles and speak to another official for guidance in the hope that the right decision will result, albeit at the expense of delaying the game. To dismiss a player, the referee has to be absolutely certain and would be wise to seek guidance to those available to them. It is still the ultimate sanction.
Rugby league gives the referee the luxury of placing a player "on report" but this is quite often seen as a cop out. Until relatively recently, sin binning should only be used as punishment for technical offenses. Rugby union referees thanks firstly to the rules on "tip tackling" and now in relation to head hits, run the distinct risk of being accused of lacking consistency.
Are the rugby union authorities correct in being so strict on head hits? Yes they are but there will be consequences. The issue of consistency being one of them but also the likelihood that more players will be dispatched to the dressing rooms early, potentially reducing the quality of the game. More controversy for the referees is also inevitable. This may or may not be short term as the message hits home with players and coaches. World rugby has no choice given the furor over head injuries to act and act decisively or face the potential consequences of legal action in the future.
Where I think sport in general is failing to acknowledge is that whilst the focus on head injuries is welcome, it really should be extended to the whole central nervous system (CNS). It is the action of "axial loading" which is of particular concern which is when players go head first into another solid object such as another player or the ground. The desire to severely punish the "tip tackle" is entirely warranted for this reason. Whilst it is the tackle that is the most dangerous interaction in the game, scrutiny is also needed on the collapsing scrum and what goes on within the ruck. The spectacle of fighting or brawling that many still see as part of the game needs to be punished severely. Football has a rule that players raising their hands are sent off and there is no reason rugby should not follow suit.
If one sought to be facetious, suggesting that scrums become non-competitive and that rucks be replaced by allowing the player to regain their feet and play the ball might be a way of making rugby union safer still, particularly for inexperienced players. However, rugby league also needs to get its house in order. Recent rule changes in the code have concerned themselves with the more technical aspects of the game and there seems no appreciation of the need to reduce head injury. The potential for tackle based head hits in rugby league is arguably higher due to the desire to dislodge the ball from the players upper body which can lead to mistimed tackles becoming head high as the tackler can easily misjudge their impact.
To rugby union's credit, the medical support provided to players on match day will be second to none. I have commented before on the importance of medical care at boxing events needing to be of the highest quality and top level rugby union sets a high bar. Sport comes with a risk and those playing it should be fully aware of that risk but the authorities do have that oft used phrase "duty of care" to look after its participants. The crusade against head injuries is well intended and other sports need to take note. The rugby union authorities would be advised in my opinion to extend this from brain to wider CNS injuries and actions that can damage the spinal cord in addition to the brain. Credit is again due to rugby union for its reduction in spinal injuries but there will be those like me who wince every time a scrum collapses.
The hope will be for a head injury free tournament. Whether it will be a red card free tournament remains to be seen.