The RFU has stood firm over its ban on tackles above the waist, which its council refused to consult the wider game on before voting for. So fierce has been the backlash from those affected that Bill Sweeney, the governing body’s chief executive, and its board are in danger of facing a vote of no confidence. But Gilpin defended the ban, which was announced against a background of the latest wave of legal action against World Rugby and the RFU by former players with dementia or other brain disorders.
“The RFU, obviously, is in the process of implementing some changes around tackle height that we support,” he said.
“Because we know, from all of the research and science and medicine, that lowering the tackle height is a really important part of making the game safer.
“There’s a lot of work to do to educate people. But we’ve got to, as a sport, try to find that really difficult but hugely important balance between safety, but making the game entertaining to watch.
“It’s not binary. It’s not one or the other. It’s how do we make the game safer and a better spectacle to watch and a better game to play?
“It’s tough because it’s a really, really complex message to deliver. On one level, it’s very simple. We know from all the research that’s been done, and it is incredibly comprehensive, you’re four-and-a-half times more likely to sustain a head injury when you tackle from an upright position than when the tackler is bent at the waist.
“We need to get players tackling lower at every part of the game. Obviously, there’s an elite part of the game where we’re doing a huge amount of work, and we’ve used sanctions, and red cards in particular, trying to drive changes in behaviour.
“When you look at the community game, it’s challenging to roll that out on a global basis.
“It requires significant buy-in from the game in different parts of the world.
“You’ll always have the traditionalists, I guess, who understandably say, ‘Stop tweaking things and don’t change too much, because we’re really concerned about losing the inherent fabric of the sport’ — and we all absolutely get that. At the same time, we’ve got to make sure that we are attracting people to the sport that is safe to play, or is as safe to play as a sport that’s a contact one can be.
“There’s always work to do in implementing change and how you can consult around change and how you communicate and educate around change. But the key message is, let’s get the tackle height lower at every level of the game because that will reduce — absolutely reduce — the number of head injuries that we see in rugby.
“That’s really important if, again, we’re going to win the battle for the hearts and minds of not just the young people we want to play the game, boys and girls, but the mums and dads who may be concerned about injuries in rugby.
“So, we’ve got a responsibility from a World Rugby perspective, to work hard with our member federations around the world.
“That communication challenge is tougher in places where rugby’s got a long heritage and history and is played in significant numbers, and that’s what the RFU is experiencing in this last week or so.”
Gilpin’s declaration comes as momentum is building towards a vote of no confidence in RFU chief executive Sweeney, with close to 250 clubs now in support of a special general meeting in the wake of the governing body’s move to implement new tackle laws.
Community Clubs Union, an independent organisation launched in response to last week’s announcement, has spearheaded the campaign. They are hoping in the coming days to reach final sign-off on a letter requesting the special general meeting, which requires the support of at least 100 members of the union, and are coordinating the process of collecting letters from each dissenting club, which must be signed by a chairperson and a secretary.
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