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‘Red card sends powerful message around need for change’

Harsher penalties will help rugby adapt in fight against neurodegenerative disease, say Headway

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The “zero tolerance” approach to head contact which resulted in a controversial red card in England’s first match in the Rugby World Cup must be applauded in the ongoing fight against neurodegenerative disease, brain injury charity Headway has said. 

Tom Curry was sent off in England’s World Cup opener against Argentina early, following a head-on-head collision with Argentina full-back Juan Cruz Mallia just three minutes into the match. 

The red card has been criticised from some quarters, and the apparent inconsistency in when such collisions are penalised has also been highlighted following similar circumstances where Chile’s Martin Sigren was sin-binned, and no action was taken against South Africa’s Jesse Kriel. 

But Luke Griggs, chief executive of brain injury charity Headway, praised the move, and hopes harsher penalties for head-on-head contact help to bring about change. 

“There is no doubt that rugby has a challenge on its hands as it attempts to reduce the risk of neurological damage for players without eliminating the contact and physicality that is such a key element of the sport,” he said. 

“The zero-tolerance approach to head contact – made deliberately or accidentally – that has led to a spate of red cards, including for Tom Curry in England’s World Cup opener against Argentina, is contentious for some.

“However, we have always said that the sport needs to evolve and rugby should be applauded for trying to force behavioural change.

“The risk and reward equation when it comes to when and how to challenge for the ball has changed. These harsher penalties for making contact with opponents’ heads will hopefully have the effect of players being more cautious in how they make contact with an opponent – without completely removing the physicality.

“The hope is that this will in turn lower the risk of concussions and the long-term impact of repeated head trauma.”

The head-on-head contact decision-making was updated in 2021, in line with efforts to increase player safety, with officials considering if the actions of the player were intentional, reckless, and/or avoidable.

While penalties for such collisions are now becoming more commonplace, for man, it remains controversial – but is something that, with support from all sides, can bring about vital changes in player safety, says Luke. 

“By its very definition, evolution of any kind takes time and this change to the laws of the game will require the support and patience of all involved with the sport – including players, coaches, and spectators,” he says. 

“The transparent way in which decisions are being communicated to players and audiences alike is also welcome, but there needs to be greater consistency, including explanations given in cases where a yellow card has not been upgraded to a red.

“The physicality on show in this weekend’s matches was immense and demonstrates just how much bigger, faster and stronger players are these days. 

“Normalising or celebrating the big hits is one thing, but ignoring the known and preventable risks is no longer acceptable.

“Fans may not always welcome the decisions, but if it leads to safer play on the pitch then this zero-tolerance approach to head contacts has to be given a chance to work.”

HIWIN

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