Rugby’s lawmakers could consider proposals to all but ban substitutions after Sir Bill Beaumont said he’ll meet with Sir Ian McGeechan to discuss concerns the sport has come 'unnecessarily dangerous’.
That was the claim made by McGeechan and four other British and Irish Lions legends, who penned a recent letter calling for rugby’s marshals to overhaul the current system.
Former Lions Sir Gareth Edwards, Willie John McBride, Barry John and John Taylor signed the letter, which hinted at fears that “'giants' crashing into tiring opponents” left players at major risk.
The letter also quoted the autobiography of ex- Wales captain Sam Warburton, who spoke of fears a player could “die during a game,” though changes to welfare rules have since altered his stance.
World Rugby chairman Beaumont told The Times he plans to meet McGeechan—with whom he toured New Zealand on the 1977 Lions series—in an effort to find a resolution.
“I have the utmost respect for the guys that wrote that letter so I am going to meet Geech (McGeechan) and speak to him about their concerns. He is someone I have played with, who is a good friend,” he said.
“We are trying to gather as much evidence as we can. It is important World Rugby does not act in haste because that can lead to unintended consequences. Whatever the outcome of this research, player welfare will be at the top of the list of priorities.”
International rugby laws currently allow eight substitutions—of which three must account as cover for the three front-row positions—and teams routinely make use of all their replacements.
The changes proposed by McGeechan, Edwards, McBride, John and Taylor would signal a major shift in the sport, with discussions over post-career dementia becoming more prominent in recent years.
A recent study conducted by Imperial College London found almost a quarter of participating players “showed abnormalities” in their brain, regardless of whether they’d suffered a recent head injury or not.
Beaumont continued: “I have always been a believer that the reward you get from being part of a team and the life skills you get from that outweigh the risks from playing the game.
“Let's look at whether having so many tactical replacements has changed the shape of the game. We have to take all the stakeholders with us.
“We are not complacent as an organisation or resting on our laurels, we want to make the game more attractive, to attract more men and women and boys and girls to play and watch rugby at all levels.”
The Lions’ letter suggested it would be “grossly negligent to allow the status quo to continue," though there are risks that come with the proposed changes also.
It’s common in the modern sport for larger, less fit players to be replaced earlier and more frequently in matches, with many players in the front row, for example, unaccustomed to playing 80 minutes.
Those players would be liable to grow considerably more tired and lose focus compared to some of their fitter foes, leaving them at greater risk of injury if left on for a game’s latter stages.
A passage from the former Lions’ plea read: “Rugby union was conceived as a 15-a-side game for 30 players. With the current eight substitutes per side, many of whom are tactical 'impact players' or 'finishers', this can and often does stretch to 46.
"More than half a team can be changed, and some players are not expected to last 80 minutes so train accordingly, prioritising power over aerobic capacity. This shapes the entire game, leading to more collisions and in the latter stages numerous fresh 'giants' crashing into tiring opponents.”
The Daily Mail reported research is ongoing at the University of Bath, analysing 2,000 elite matches in both hemispheres to assess the injury risk of tackles made by starting players versus substitutes.
Conversation regarding player welfare has spiked following the Lions’ 2-1 tour loss in South Africa this summer, Warren Gatland ’s first series defeat in three trips as head coach.
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