Dual-code international Timana Tahu's journey to revolutionise rugby league's tackle

Bent low, head to the side, Timana Tahu made a seemingly textbook waist level tackle to take down his opponent. In doing so, he broke his nose, suffered two black eyes and after being helped from the field, came too on the bench with no recollection of how he'd got there. It was 2001, he was playing in the City-Country match in Bathurst and his journey to revolutionise rugby league's tackling technique had just begun.

Tahu would recall this head knock as the most memorable he'd suffered during his playing days in both rugby league and union. It would put him on a course that would take him from Newcastle, to Sydney, to the United States and back to Newcastle in an effort to lower the risk of concussion in tackles.

"I remember playing in Bathurst in a City-Country representative game, it's usually a game that puts you on track for State of Origin," Tahu told ESPN. "I made a traditional tackle, lower body around the waist, and the next thing I remember was waking up on the bench wondering how I got there.

"You start contemplating 'do I do that same tackle again? Or do I change things up?'"

After five seasons with the Newcastle Knights, including a premiership in 2001, Tahu signed with the Parramatta Eels for 2005 and immediately knew he'd need to change the way he tackled. His new coach Brian Smith had informed him he'd be moving from the wing into the centres, a position that would see a huge increase in contact, and Tahu was determined not to disappoint.

"I had to fix up my defence, so I started going to see a friend who was an ex-UFC fighter and started doing wrestling drills with him and from there I started to become creative. I was trying to manipulate the wrestling take downs to see if I could use them in the professional realm of rugby league and rugby union.

"I started doing some various tackle techniques during training and at the games and started working out what tackles I felt like that were lowering the risk of hurting myself again."

As the years went on, Tahu made the switch from league to union in 2008 to play for the Waratahs and then the Wallabies, before returning back to league in 2010 to play for the Eels, Panthers and eventually a return home to the Knights where he ended his league career in 2014. He would finish his playing days back in Union in the short lived Pro League in the United States. Throughout that time the dual-code international never stopped working on his new tackle technique, as he continually looked to find ways to make the tackle safer.

"I was doing these new tackle techniques since 2005. Throughout my early career I was known as an attacking player, but as I developed my tackle from 2006 onwards people started recognising me as a defensive player. It was just because I was doing all these extras outside of my rugby league training with the club.

"I was trying to evolve my game, but also working out what's the best way to execute a tackle that I'm not going to hurt myself. For about 10 years I was doing all these tackle techniques and in my head I knew what I was doing was right, but I needed the evidence."

It was during his time in the States that the 40-year-old decided he needed to take the next step and conduct formal research. Taking his tackles on the road where he conducted coaching clinics at college programs, schools and clubs down to lower levels, Tahu was repeatedly asked to provide the scientific evidence behind his changes, so he returned to Newcastle where his journey began.

Contacted by Tahu in 2017, Dr Suzi Edwards, a senior biomechanics lecturer of University of Newcastle, alongside Dr Andrew Gardner a neuropsychologist within the University of Newcastle's School of Medicine and Public Health, began the formal research process with the backing of the NRL.

Starting the process with several different tackling techniques, Tahu, Dr Edwards and Dr Gardner reduced the number to just two that they believed would lower the risk of, not just head injuries, but also shoulder and neck injuries.

"There's two types of torso techniques," Dr Edwards told ESPN. "The traditional lower torso tackle is that cheek-to-cheek tackle, where you're hitting the pelvis area. Timanu's version of that is we're aiming slightly higher to the abdomen area and that allows a more upright position to have better visual awareness of what's happening with the opponent.

"The upper torso tackle is more about wrapping up the ball carrier and the ball to stop the offload. Instead of contacting with the shoulder he [Tahu] contacts with his chest and does a little pop action. Instead of trying to contact the upper body and push the carrier backwards, he's getting the momentum of both players and redirecting upwards. For that one it's looking at another strategy that players can use; do you want to wrap the ball carrier? Or do you want to go for the lower torso in more of a dominant tackle?"

According to NRL data captured between 2017-19, up to 70 percent of concussions were sustained by the tackler with most occurring in the first person into the traditional rugby league tackle. This created the basis of their research with the team focusing on making the one-on-one tackle safer, but they were also aware that even the subtlest changes to the technique could increase the risk of other injuries.

"There is that concern that if you change the tackle it may decrease the risk for one injury but it might increase the risk for others. We're looking at a holistic approach about all injuries that occur in the tackle. So far what we're looking at is specific concussion injuries but also we're looking at other injuries such as shoulder injuries, which the tackle is the common injury mechanism; we're looking at how if the change of body position might change the injury risk."

"The other thing we're also looking at is tackling efficiency and performance, so we also have to make sure that this tackling technique isn't only safer for all athletes, but when they perform this technique they're actually going to have a better performance and be more efficient. That's crucial to ensure the athletes are actually going to employ this tackle technique into a game situation."

Using the latest technology and with Tahu, now on the coaching staff at Wests Tigers, commuting from Sydney to Newcastle to help, Dr Edwards' research already suggests these techniques could reduce injury, including concussions. The next step according to Tahu is getting a seat at the table and making changes.

"Over the last two years we've been trying to gather the data and I think that's the most important part to get a seat at the table, we need to show evidence of traditional tackle techniques and how high risk they are for causing concussions in the sport.

"You look at the scientific realm and it's evolved, it's unbelievable we've got so much data and scientific evidence but we're not actually targeting the root of the problem which is the tackle technique, and that's an idea that's been stirring me since 2005 and is actually coming to life now."