As with certain politicians, reality TV shows and the weather, many people have fixed views about World Rugby. Big governing bodies traditionally generate a knee-jerk wariness, closely followed by words such as ‘blazers’ and ‘trough’. Those waiting for a great leap forwards in terms of global vision or innovation have tended to end up disappointed.

Changing perceptions can be tough, but at long last – and possibly in the nick of time – a refreshing breeze of change, if not quite a full force gale, is discernible. ‘A line in the sand’ is the phrase being used, and having studied the new mission statement released on Wednesday by World Rugby – incorporating everything from strategic aims to potentially far-reaching, fundamental law trials – it is only fair to report the early signs of a genuine sense of purpose and more collaborative problem-solving.

The proof will only really be forthcoming five or 10 years hence but, in response to the grim headlines linking concussion with early onset dementia, not to mention the lawsuit lodged on behalf of numerous former players, major efforts are being made to create what Alan Gilpin, World Rugby’s new chief executive, calls “a safer, more sustainable game”.

Gilpin, who has only been permanently in post since March, wants rugby to be “the most progressive, open and collaborative sport” in the world when it comes to player welfare. This has led to the identification of six specific ‘pillars’ which are now World Rugby’s primary focus. The first, long overdue, involves doing more for former players who, in many cases, find the game they loved cares for them less in retirement. Those who are struggling or concerned about their long-term health should now be able to access greater support.

Next up is a greater emphasis on scientific research and innovation. The latest welcome initiative is a global roster of independent concussion consultants, not affiliated to any specific team, who will review any player at elite level set to return to play within 10 days, particularly those with an extensive concussion history. The idea is to ensure that poleaxed players such as Luke Cowan-Dickie, as recently detailed in these pages, are not rushed back too soon.

Luke Cowan-Dickie, pictured against the Sharks last Wednesday, was knocked unconscious during the Premiership final on 26 June.
Luke Cowan-Dickie, pictured against the Sharks last Wednesday, was knocked unconscious during the Premiership final on 26 June. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Equally valuable, it is hoped, will be a keynote study into head impact reduction being undertaken by the University of Otago in New Zealand. More than 700 male and female players have been given special mouthguards fitted with accelerometers that, in real-time, collect and transmit crucial data each time there is a collision. The results, due before the end of this year, will potentially inform how the community game looks in future and shape the amount of high-impact contact allowed in training.

In the professional game, meanwhile, change is also nigh. From 1 August two fascinating law initiatives will operate globally. The 50:22 rule, which allows the attacking team to throw in at the lineout if they bounce the ball into touch in the opposition 22 from their own half, is designed to force teams to deploy more cover in the back field, thus reducing the brick wall of defensive bodies on the gainline. Along with a goal-line drop out rather than a scrum when the ball is held up over the try line, it is hoped it will encourage teams to do more than seek close-range contact and also decrease defensive line speed, which in turn could have welfare benefits.

Just as positive, potentially, are three trials focusing specifically on reducing injuries at the breakdown, following detailed evaluation by a specialist breakdown working group whose members have included Eddie Jones, the New Zealand coach Ian Foster, the All Blacks captain Sam Cane, the former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt and leading referees. The first will involve stricter sanctions for clearouts which target the lower limbs. The second will outlaw the practice of three or more players forming pre-bound pods and the third will tighten the definition of ‘latching’ with any player binding on to a teammate forced to stay on their feet and enter through ‘the gate.’

The quicker the speed of ball from the rucks, with any luck, the more attacking space there should be. If deemed successful the trials could be fully adopted into law next year, just over a year prior to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.

Along with the freedom at community level to permit unions greater law flexibility including weight-banded matches, reduced tackle height and limitations to scrum and lineouts, the desire to think slightly differently also informs the other three ‘pillars’: a more dedicated focus on the women’s game (as opposed to merely copying what the men have always done), improved concussion education and, finally, more open engagement with the ‘rugby family’, canvassing opinions and finding new, non-traditional ways to reach more rugby fans and players.

The sizeable extra investment required – a 50% increase, according to Gilpin – also underlines World Rugby’s desire to get ahead of the game rather than endlessly be playing catch-up. “I am clear that continuing to put player welfare front and centre is critical if we are to grow our sport,” stresses World Rugby’s chairman, Bill Beaumont.

There remain other issues in need of attention – eligibility rules, numbers of substitutes, greater diversity among council members, fairer sharing of Test gate receipts etc – but the game’s governors, finally, have acknowledged a fundamentally important truth: the more people pulling in the same direction, the better the chances of the game turning a significant corner.

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