Rugby contact training load guidelines reflect Imperial College research

Rugby contact training load guidelines reflect Imperial College research

When World Rugby announced their rugby contact training load guidelines on September 22, it was recognized that the follow-up data from Imperial College London research has reinforced the message – less contact to the head is everyone’s goal.

News this week came through via NZME that the Drake Foundation had a study conducted by the Imperial College London has found that half of elite adult rugby players [tested] showed a reduction in brain volume and, almost a quarter displayed abnormalities in brain structure, believes World Rugby has not done enough in tackling head impacts.

World Rugby and International Rugby Players (IRP) last month published new contact training load guidance aimed at reducing injury risk and supporting short and long-term player welfare. The guidance is being supported by national players’ associations, national unions, international and domestic competitions, top coaches, and clubs.

Rugby contact training load guidelines reflect Imperial College research

On the one hand, you have the global body whose remit is to police the laws and to prevent such occurrences. Yet on the other, it is a physical game, and the consequences are both skeletal and – more so in the last decade – often dramatic brain and tissue damage events (see headline photo). Examples of players like Steve Devine being carried off on stretchers, and he and others needing early retirement due to related suffering.

Instigating research has also been the role of World Rugby and the International Rugby Players (IRP) Association. To recognize the wealth of anecdotal evidence, and move to global studies as the key strategy. These Rugby contact training load guidelines are based on a global study undertaken by IRP of almost 600 players participating across 18 elite men’s and women’s competitions, and a comprehensive review of the latest injury data. Added to that, independent research from the likes of the Imperial College, and University of Otago development of advanced tools for testing athletes, and the effects of, concussion in sport.

And while World Rugby has now made suggestions that a limit of 15 minutes per week be placed on contact training; outside of game day. A proactive act to lead the change in when and for how long, male and female rugby players ‘should’ participate in contact training. An advisory which member unions will be encouraged to initiate, educate stakeholders in, and then begin controlled enforcement. Yet independent research from the Drake Foundation may be just as crucial to gain the crucial buy-in from players, as much as administrators.

Founder James Drake established his foundation in 2014, to establish the long and short-term effects of contact sport’s impacts on brain health. This involved 44 players who had suffered mild injuries in both rugby and league. The results of the foundation’s latest study have been published in the journal Brain Communications, and found concerning links between elite rugby [sport] and changes in brain structure.

While rugby may be the subject of this feature, all contact sport is under the microscope. The Drake Foundation is also heavily involved in studies involving football, with a clear correlation between ‘heading the ball’ that has been found to show demonstrable rates of damage over the career of past and present players.

Can proactive strategies combat the inevitable injury statistics?

“We’re not playing tiddlywinks”. That was the iconic statement made to a referee that at one time, identified how the once tough man’s game was changing. No longer was a ruck the place wingers feared, and battle scars were worn with pride. The scrapes to the body were becoming focused more on the outcomes of the collision. And the change has extrapolated to the point now where not only are there Yellow and Red cards, but the introduction of a Blue Card in 2016 to recognize a probable head knock, is becoming more mainstream.

The benefits from these improved protocols will be felt in time. The new and youngest players will ultimately find their careers most positively influenced by mandates like the ones suggested in the new Rugby contact training load guidelines. Current and former players like Jamie Roberts and Sene Naoupu have been speaking to players to promote the need to adapt to change.

A more measured and consistent approach to training will help manage the contact load for players, especially those moving between club and national training environments. Will proactive strategies combat some inevitable injury statistics? Yes, as awareness is the first step towards change.

Just as the ruck area is an area where direct – and intentional – contact to the head is being trained out of players, the same can be found in the tackle laws. With directives aiming to lower the contact point to below the shoulders, incidents of direct contact to the head can be mitigated. That is not to say, that the tackler themselves is still sometimes more likely to be injured, than the player being tackled is. Here, technique is the best method of reducing knocks to the head.

The game is not tiddlywinks, yes. It involves brute force yet, the positive results from refined training and technique, and qualified research from the likes of Imperial College and the University of Otago will go a long way to re-educate administrators on the benefits of adopting the modern game to reflect the concerns of the community.

That is from both the professional and amateur grades alike.


“Main photo credit”
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