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Timana Tahu: ‘There’s no such thing as a safer tackle. All we can do is try to lower the risk’

The Guardian logo The Guardian 4/05/2021 Emma Kemp

It was in a City-Country rugby league game in 2001 that Timana Tahu had a light-bulb moment. Or perhaps, more accurately, a lights-out moment. He made what he describes as a “textbook lower-body tackle”.

“The next thing I remember was sitting on the bench and wondering how I got there,” Tahu tells Guardian Australia.

The then Newcastle Knights winger was also wondering what had happened to leave him with two black eyes, a broken nose and a headache for the next week. “But the concussion protocols weren’t even in at that time,” he says. “So I kept on playing the following week.”

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The incident planted a seed that grew until he moved to Parramatta and coach wanted him to move to the centres, where he would find himself facing many more collision situations, and started doing some wrestling drills with a former UFC fighter.

“My brain started ticking away on how I could use this in tackling in rugby league or rugby union,” Tahu says. “Then I started studying it and working out some different variations or tackle techniques.

“It is similar in body positioning, but there’s just different biomechanics and different head positioning that, if it does come in and does get approved to be taught, we can make it so simple that a kid could execute this tackle. I started going away from what my defensive coaches were telling me, which is high risk, and doing what was working for me.”

Tahu felt additional risk lay in the traditional “cheek-to-cheek” method, which involves the tackler targeting the ball carrier’s pelvic area and moving their head to one side of the body so their cheek ends up their opponent’s bum cheek. In this situation, he felt the head was vulnerable to any change in direction of the ball carrier and, being in a low position, less able to react.

The unforgiving pelvic bone was also seen as perilous, resulting in a slightly altered method of aiming higher for the softer abdominal region.

“I did get knocked out a few times doing the lower-body tackle technique,” Tahu says. “And if you see in today’s game you see a lot of players getting knocked out during a lower-body traditional textbook tackle.”

Tahu used this variation and others for the remaining decade of his career across rugby league – with the Eels, Knights, Penrith Panthers and New South Wales – and rugby union – with the NSW Waratahs and Wallabies and, lastly, Denver Stampede in the United States’ brief PRO Rugby experiment.

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It was while in the US that he took some coaching clinics and approached universities and schools. The common reprise was: where is your scientific evidence?

So he went to get some. In 2017, he began formal research with the University of Newcastle. Backed by the NRL, senior biomechanics lecturer Dr Suzi Edwards, neuropsychologist Dr Andrew Gardner and some colleagues used 3D motion capture to gather data from a group of amateur players performing different tackling techniques.

“When concussions occur during collision sports, they’re typically always during the tackle, and most of the time it’s to the tackler, not the ball carrier,” Edwards says. “So we want to have a look at the mechanism of injury in the tackle and understand what’s actually happening, and how we can protect the tackler and the ball carrier to reduce their risk of sustaining a concussion.”

In theory, it sounds an ideal method of concussion mitigation. But is it a realistic solution for a player in live match scenarios? “It’s trying to reduce those incidents where they’re putting themselves in a dangerous position,” Edwards says.

Related: Explainer: what we know about concussion in Australian sport

And what about the hundreds of other tackles in any one game which do not, on their own, cause concussion but do contribute to repeated brain traumas that over time have been shown to lead to chronic long-term damage, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)?

“What we’re planning to do in our next step is look at the inertial head impacts,” Edwards says. “So looking at the acceleration that players sustained during tackles throughout a number of different tackles, and they are looking at the sub-concussive impacts where we don’t know what’s happening … so we can lower that inertial head force they’re sustaining and therefore reduce the risk.

“It’s not just looking at the actual ones that cause the injuries, but that repetitive nature of the amount of tackles – because you’re getting athletes tackling up to 50 tackles per game … that’s a critical part, not just looking at the specific incidents, but looking at the cumulation of tackles.”

Timana Tahu wearing a football uniform: Tahu while playing for the Panthers in 2011. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Tahu while playing for the Panthers in 2011. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Tahu, who is now on the Wests Tigers coaching staff and doing work with the NRL, believes sport has evolved significantly since his playing days, but also feels “we haven’t really got to the root of the problem, which is the tackle technique itself”.

“Things getting implemented in junior football are not being implemented in senior football … there was a bit of a confusion as well,” he says. “So for me, it was trying to not change it as much, but looking at body positioning and head positioning during contact.

“There’s no such thing as a safer tackle, because it’s a contact sport and you’ve got two human beings running at full tilt at each other. All we can do is try to lower the risk. This might be just the start, but at least this is out of there, we’re getting exposure and we can open people’s minds up.”

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