The independent Board of the Rugby Football League have accepted 44 recommendations from the sport’s Brain Health and Clinical Advisory Group Sub-Committees, as the latest and most wide-ranging phase of the drive to make the sport safer and more accessible at all levels.
The recommendations – detailed here on the RFL website New for 2024 (rugby-league.com) - include changes for the 2024 season to the Laws, the Operational Rules, to Medical / First-Aid standards, and Coaching / Performance interventions.
This will affect all levels of the sport, from the Betfred Super Leagues (Men and Women) to Under-6s at community clubs, in different ways.
Since 2021, the RFL have been working with Leeds Beckett University on the TaCKLE Project (Tackle and Contact Kinematics, Loads and Exposure), led by Ben Jones, a Professor at LBU who is the RFL’s Strategic Lead for Performance and Research.
The use of Instrumented Mouthguards since 2021 has allowed detailed studies of head acceleration exposures, which permitted a number of research projects and Laws Trials, leading to the latest recommendations. These studies have been used alongside injury surveillance studies, which have been ongoing for the last 10 years.
The recommendations include mandated use of the latest models of Instrumented Mouthguards for players in Men’s and Women’s Super League through Rugby League’s partnership with Prevent Biometrics.
Other recommendations which will apply in professional Rugby League from 2024 include a mandated minimum off-season of four weeks, followed by an additional minimum two-week pre-season period without contact training, to reduce cumulative player load.
In addition, match limits over a 12-month period will be introduced, with different figures for forwards and backs to reflect their differing levels of contact exposure based on the last three years of research by Leeds Beckett University.
Independent concussion spotters will be introduced on a trial basis in 2024, following on from the success during last year’s Rugby League World Cup. Recent changes to on-field and off-field sanctions relating to head contact, and to the use of 18th player interchanges following Head Injury Assessments (HIAs), have been updated. This will include the introduction of the Head Contact Sanctioning Framework.
Community Rugby League (including Junior / Student) and Age Grade Rugby League (professional clubs)
These are the areas of Rugby League in which the most fundamental changes will be introduced immediately – for introduction in the 2024 season.
At all levels of Community Rugby League, and at Age Grade at professional clubs (including Reserve Grade), the legal limit for any contact is to be lowered – from shoulder height (ie below the neck) to arm pit height (ie below the shoulder).
Any contact above the arm pit will therefore be penalised.
This follows the outcomes of the Laws Trials in the Under-18 Academy competition in the summer of 2023 – which were found to have significantly reduced the amount of head contact, and the number of head accelerations.
It is further recommended that this Laws change should be applied at all levels of professional Rugby League from the 2025 season.
Junior Rugby League
Twelve of the 44 recommendations relate to specific age groups.
Three Laws changes will see contact Rugby League replaced by touch / tag in a stepped approach, starting with Under 6s and 7s in the 2024 season, and continuing with that age group to Under 8s from 2025, and Under 9s from 2026.
This is consistent with the sport’s existing Safe Play Code, developed following the Whole Game Review, carried out in 2019.
This will now be enforced as mandatory from 2024 at all age groups, meaning that Under 10s fixtures will be a maximum of nine players per team with a 5-metre retreat by the defensive line; and Under 11s will be a maximum of 11 players per team, again with a 5-metre retreat by the defensive line.
From Under 12s to Under 18s, a trial will be held in at least one member league in 2024 to reduce the retreat by the defensive line to 7 metres, and to minimise knockout cup fixtures – with a view to more widespread introduction from 2025.
One further recommendation which will apply across Community Rugby League from 2024 is that no Rugby League should be played in the month of December unless played as part of an existing winter offering – the latter including schools, colleges and student Rugby League.
For all other competitions, no contact Rugby League activity will take place after the third weekend in November until the following January when a graduated return to contact will be in place.
“Opportunities to increase the appeal and accessibility of Rugby League, especially at junior and community levels”
Tony Sutton, the RFL’s Chief Executive who also chairs the Brain Health Sub-Committee, hosted a media conference at which the recommendations were outlined at Rugby League’s Etihad headquarters on Thursday December 7.
He was joined by a number of other members of the Brain Health Sub-Committee, including the RFL’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Chris Brookes, and other influential voices from the sport.
“In stressing the significance of these recommendations which have now been ratified by the RFL’s independent Board of Directors, we acknowledge the challenges they will pose for those at all levels of the sport.
“We believe they are essential, as Rugby League must respond to developments in medical and scientific knowledge to prioritise the safety of those that play; and also that they offer exciting opportunities to increase the appeal and accessibility of Rugby League, especially at junior and community levels.
“Rugby League will remain a tough, gladiatorial and character-building team sport. But we believe the mandating of tag/touch at the introductory levels - initially Under-6s rising to Under-8s from 2026 – and the reduction in the legal tackle height at all levels from 2025 will place a new emphasis on skill and attacking play, further increasing the appeal of Rugby League both to parents, and to open-age community players.
“On behalf of the RFL, and the sport as a whole, I thank all who have been involved in developing these recommendations, especially Professor Ben Jones and his team at Leeds Beckett University, and my colleagues on the Brain Health Committee.
“We have recognised throughout this process the importance of communication in making such fundamental changes. Stakeholders have been kept informed throughout of the direction of travel, and a number of recent meetings have been held, including with professional clubs and coaches, the Community Board and leagues.
“Those discussions and explanations will continue throughout the winter ahead of the start of the 2024 season. My plea to all involved in the sport would be to recognise the fundamental importance of our match officials in introducing these changes. That was reinforced by the challenges faced by the group who were involved in the Academy Laws Trials last summer, to which they responded admirably. Next year more than ever, they will all need and deserve our support.”