Rugby World Cup 2015: Does selecting only two hookers cause unjustified risk?

Published 16 September 2015 | Authored by: Kevin Carpenter

In the lead up to the upcoming 2015 Rugby World Cup (‘RWC 2015’) starting this Friday 18th September, there have been many sports law related issues at the top of the agenda for the game’s governing body, World Rugby, to consider and put the appropriate regulations and procedures in place including player welfare and safety (particularly concussion),1 and the use of new technology2 to assist referees with the identification of infringements of the Laws of the Game of Rugby Union3 (‘the Laws’) during the match (in addition to the Television Match Official that they already have at their disposal).

However, as a qualified and active rugby union referee, the regulatory story that caught this author’s attention was when two of the top ranked nations, Australia and Wales, announced that there were only two specialist hookers selected in their squad of 31 players.4 In doing so, the coaches of each team and the national union are - this blog will argue - taking significant risks both with the sporting and civil law, that are contrary to the general drive in the game to have a heightened awareness of player safety issues and the protection of player welfare.

To begin with, for those not familiar with the game of rugby union, the hooker is a very specialist position and is, per ESPN’s description, “the front row forward wearing No. 2 shirt. The player is supported on either side in the scrum by props [one loose head prop on his left and one tight head prop on his right] and is required to gain possession of the ball in the scrum by hooking or blocking the ball with one of his/her feet. The hooker will normally also be the forward who throws the ball into the lineout.5 All of the pressure in the scrum goes through the bodies of the front row forwards, the hooker and two props, in particular through their head and necks, which is why measures to ensure their safety in rugby union regulations are paramount.

The regulation of the safety of the hooker is to be found in the following rugby union sports ‘laws’:

  1. Laws of the Game of Rugby Union6 - Law 3.5, The front row, replacements and substitutions – In a match day squad of 23 players (the number allowed for International Matches) there must be at least 6 “suitably trained and experienced players” who can play in the front row and on the first occasion that a replacement hooker is required the team can continue to play safely with contested scrums [Laws 3.5(a) and (e)]. Where there are not sufficient “suitably trained and experiences players” to play in the front row, following one of those on the field having been injured, sin binned or sent off, the referee may order uncontested scrums for the necessary period of time for reasons of safety. [Law 3.5(l)].
  2. World Rugby Handbook7 – Regulation 15, International Matches – In any International Match two specialist front row Players are required to be selected by each Union as replacements/substitutes. [Reg 15.1.1]
  3. 2015 Rugby World Cup Tournament Rules8 – Rule 1.1.7, Compliance with Law 3.5 - In terms of the provision of front row players to comply with Law 3.5, the necessary number of reserve front row players must be included in the Tournament Team [31 player squad] to cover last minute injuries to front row players selected in the Match Team [23 player squad] within the 48 hour replacement timeframe.

Although it has not been formally confirmed, it is assumed that both the Welsh and Australian coaches will name one of their props as a “suitably trained and experienced player” to play hooker if required, as this is the responsibility of the team and not the referee on the day [Law 3.5(m)].

By only selecting two specialist hookers in their squad, the two teams risk facing sanctions should one of their hookers become injured 48 hours before one of their games is due to kick-off, as Rule 1.1.7 means they cannot be replaced. If the then one fit hooker gets injured during the match in question the referee may have to order uncontested scrums (no pushing and challenging for the ball) if the scrums are not safe with the replacement prop playing hooker, which could be very unfair by neutering one of the opposition’s most potent weapons.

In terms of potential sanctions, any breach of Law 3.5 must be reported by the referee [Law 3.5(l)] and the Tournament Disputes Committee has the power to order the forfeiture of all match points for that fixture and possible financial penalties. [Rule 1.1.7]

Of greater concern is the potential liability for the team and their union should the prop deemed “suitably trained and experienced player” to play hooker, by the team, in fact not be of the required skill and competence at international level and become badly injured during the game. Injuries to people playing hooker can be career threatening and indeed life threatening, for example paralysis due to spinal cord damage.9 After all, hooker is a highly technical position when played at any level that requires experience and trust of the two props, as they will be supporting the hooker’s weight when he has his foot off the ground to ‘strike’ for the ball in the scrum. Should such an injury occur, the author believes it would be arguable that the management and the union (vicarious liability) had breached their duty of care to the prop-hooker-replacement. Namely that they had placed him in a position where the harm was reasonably foreseeable, especially given all the regulations put in place by World Rugby, and a claim could be brought against them for tens of thousands of pounds and more.

This is especially so given that a number of cases where coaches have been found liable for injuries sustained by a player for one or more failures to: follow appropriate procedures, use appropriate techniques, supervise their performances and generally act within their sphere of competence.10 A case in point from rugby, the principles of which could very much be applied to the doomsday scenario outlined above, is Mountford v Newlands School.11 In that case a school coach was held liable, and the school vicariously liable as his employer, for the injuries to a pupil suffered during the impact of a tackle by an over-aged pupil who the coach had allowed to play contrary to the applicable regulations that had been issued by the responsible national governing body.12

An analogy can also be drawn from the findings in two cases where liability was attributed to referees for front row injuries in the scrum: Smoldon v Whitworth and Nolan13 and Vowles v Evans and The Welsh Rugby Union Limited.14, 15 In the latter, the referee was held liable, and the Welsh Rugby Union vicariously liable having appointed him to the match, for the catastrophic injuries received by Mr Vowles following a scrummage during an amateur match between Llanharan 2nd XV and Tondu 2nd XV in January 1998 where he ended up playing hooker for the home team.16 The referee was held liable in negligence because he failed to enforce the Laws which contributed to the collapse of a scrum and resulted in the injury. With no “suitably trained and experienced player” to play hooker, the referee, who was experienced, should have ordered that the match be continued with uncontested scrums.17 With Mr Vowles’ injuries causing him to be confined to a wheelchair due to permanent incomplete tetraplegia, damages of £1.8 million were awarded against the Welsh Rugby Union.

Since the scrum engagement procedure was changed in 2013 from 'crouch, touch, pause, engage' to now 'crouch, bind, set' to remove the ‘hit’ element and re-introduce the skills of the hooker,18 in the author’s opinion, as a former front row forward (tight head prop) and current referee, a prop is not able to cover this position to the required standard of the “suitably trained and experienced player”, especially at international level. As the opportunity to change players in the 2015 RWC squad has now passed, other than on proven medical or compassionate grounds, one can only hope for Australia and Wales’ sake that one of their two hookers does not get injured within 48 hours of a game and the catastrophic outcome does not come to fruition with the risks outlined above being tested in the courts.


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About the Author

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.

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