Points system would deter rugby's high tacklers, says Popham

rugby04 September 2023 03:18| © AFP
Alix Popham © Gallo Images

A points system to punish high tackling in rugby which could lead to a six-month ban would be a deterrent to "serial offenders" such as Owen Farrell and reduce the risk of serious injury, former Wales star Alix Popham has told AFP.

Popham, who won 33 caps between 2003 and 2008 and played in two World Cups, was diagnosed three years ago with probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the age of just 40.

CTE is a progressive brain condition that is thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head and episodes of concussion.

Popham is one of a group of former rugby internationals, including ex-England hooker Steve Thompson, who are pursuing legal action against World Rugby, England's Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.

Popham, like many, was appalled when Farrell's red card, for a high tackle on Wales's Taine Basham last month, was rescinded only for him to be given a four-game suspension on appeal.

As a result, Farrell will miss England's opening two matches of the World Cup.

"I like him as a player, I like his competitiveness, but he is a serial bloody offender," Popham told AFP in a phone interview.

"I think there should be a points system like on a driving licence.

"If you accrue nine points then the player should receive a six-month ban.

"I think it would work as it has certainly worked in putting people off speeding and other driving offences."

Popham believes that for parents mulling over whether to encourage their children to play rugby, Farrell's ban is insufficient and sends the wrong message.

"It is certainly not being made as safe as possible," he told AFP by phone.

"On top of this, taking someone's head off is only worthy of a four-match ban because it is the World Cup coming up.

"It is insane and does not sit right."

Popham says the system is not helped because of a lack of a clear, unified message being sent by the authorities or referees.

"There is no consistency across the board," he said.

He cited the example of Tonga's George Moala, who was banned for 10 weeks, later reduced to five, for a head-high tackle "and a week later a red card for Farrell gets downgraded to a yellow and there is uproar".

"It is not setting a good example to the kids."


Popham thinks the highest permitted tackle should be at the bottom of the sternum – "around six inches lower than now"

The Welshman, who first noticed something was wrong with his memory in 2019 when he got completely lost during a bike ride near his home, says players' welfare is clearly not top of the authorities' list.

"More should be done on non-matchday activity, as 95 per cent of the damage inflicted is done in training," he said.

"It is common sense to reduce contact in training.

"However, the lawyers have got hold of it and they have warned those in charge 'don't do anything as it will open a can of worms'.

"It has become a game of chess played by lawyers where the players' welfare is not the priority."

Popham says the difference between how a boxer is told to recuperate after being knocked out and the procedure for a rugby player in the same situation does the sport no favours.

"I simply do not understand how a rugby player can be KO'd one week and play the next whereas if a boxer is, he is obliged to rest for several weeks, if not months," said Popham.

"The rules are not fit for purpose."

Popham is a tireless campaigner and along with a group of 40 other cyclists, including 2018 Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas, is setting out from London on September 19 to reach Lyon prior to the Wales v Australia pool match five days later.

They are aiming to raise £50 000 ($63 000, 58 400 euros) for Head For Change, a charitable foundation that aims to support former rugby players affected by neurodegenerative disease.

Thomas will only have finished the Vuelta a Espana two days before the ride.

"I have told him the route is all downhill," Popham said with a chuckle.