IRB New Scrum Rules a Response to Other Leagues Liabilities?

October 2, 2013


By James Rees – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

The sport of rugby is somewhat unique amongst the major sports played throughout the world in the sense that the rules are constantly being readjusted. This summer the International Rugby Boards (IRB) continued its mandate to readjust the rules and one of the game’s most notorious features was subject to these changes. The scrum is one of the most unique aspects of the game, consisting of a battle of raw strength and refined technique. It is also one of the game’s most dangerous components as scrums have left many participants with debilitating injuries and have even resulted in the deaths of some players.

In a study titled Contact Events in Rugby Union and Their Propensity to Cause Injury from 2007, 13 English Premiership teams were analyzed over two seasons too see what aspects in the sport caused the most injuries. The study found that whilst tackling led to the most injuries, scrums were less common than tackles but carried a 60% greater risk of injury than tackles. Furthermore, there was an increased risk of catastrophic injury associated with the scrum, as one in six scrums would collapse leading to greater potential for these injuries (most commonly serious head and neck injuries).

In an effort to reduce the number of injuries and long-term effects, the IRB has instituted a new protocol for players to engage with each other when coming together at the scrum. Rather than continuing with the former crouch, touch, set cadence that resulted in a massive hit when the opposing teams came together, players are now required to start in a position where they are effectively bound together before they may even begin pushing. According to the IRB, studies from the University of Bath’s Scrum Forces Project showed that the new scrum technique would produce a 25% reduction in the amount of force applied in the scrum.

To give some reference, an average elite men’s scrum would produce 16,500 Newtons of force under the previous cadence. This amount of force equates to 1682 kilograms of force created each time teams would scrum. The leader of the Bath project, Dr. Grant Trewartha, estimates that as much as 15% of an eighty minute game can be spent scrumming. This equates to nearly twelve minutes per game of subjecting forwards to these forces.

Upon reviewing this information, it can be reasonably assumed that the IRB’s decision to change the scrum is consistent with the mandate of safeguarding player health and welfare. A reduction in the amount of force applied in the scrum will not only ensure that less stress is placed on a player’s body, but will also help to create a stable platform and prevent the collapses that were associated with catastrophic scrumming injuries. However, there may be more to the change in rules than just player safety.

In August 2013, the National Football League reached a settlement with 4,500 players for $765 million over head trauma they suffered whilst playing gridiron football. Whilst there was no admission of wrong doing by the NFL as a part of the settlement, this still represented a massive payout to the players in order to keep the case out of the courtroom. The National Hockey League is also facing a lawsuit as the family of former player Derek Boogard filed against the league in May for negligence in causing the death of the former enforcer. Both these legal actions exemplify that professional leagues are facing an increasing risk of lawsuits as former players seek recognition of the punishment their bodies suffer for their sports (although there is no formal connection at this stage).

My assertion is that whilst the IRB can clearly rely upon player welfare as the basis for the change in the rules, they are also pre-emptively looking to protect themselves from possible lawsuits related to the long-term effects of the sport on players bodies. One question that remains is whether the rule change is enough to protect the IRB from potential legal action. In the Canadian civil law case of Anderson v. Maple Ridge (District) a stop sign had been moved following multiple accidents at an intersection. The plaintiff had been injured at the intersection and asserted that by moving the sign, the district was admitting liability. The court held that action after the fact is not an admission of liability, but can be used as evidence to establish negligence.

According to this principle one could infer that the change in the rules of the scrum could be cited as evidence in a case against the IRB to establish negligence. A player who suffered long-term damage from the previous scrum cadence may be able to cite the rule change, asserting the IRB was aware of the dangers of the scrum, but continued to allow players to subject themselves to this increased risk before changing the rule.

The IRB does benefit from a history of rule changes associated with ensuring player welfare in other areas of the game. Furthermore, there is a major difference between the IRB and other sports governing bodies in that rugby is so new professionally and they have actively sought to make the game safer for the players. Yet the question still remains whether this change is enough to prevent long-term damage to players and whether the IRB may one day be held accountable for players who subjected their bodies to the punishments of the previous rules.

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