Rugby World Cup organisers hope new safety rules will broaden sport’s appeal – The Guardian

Britain is gearing up for six weeks of rugby frenzy as the World Cup kicks off at Twickenham on Friday. But despite the growing buzz around the tournament, the game, beset by its reputation as a brutal contact sport, is failing to break through to the mainstream, with many parents reluctant to let their children take part.

However, figures suggest that new regulations and protocols designed to curb some of the more violent confrontations are producing a dramatic fall in the number of serious injuries to players, something that those in charge of the sport know is vital if it is to attract a wider base of supporters and players.

The 2015 tournament will be the first World Cup to be played using a new scrum protocol that, according to data shared with the Observer, has had a dramatic effect on reducing catastrophic injury. Developed by biomechanic experts at the department for health at the University of Bath, the “crouch, bind, set” protocol is now the standard scrum engagement technique.

Before it was trialled in 2013, the International Rugby Board estimated that 40% of all serious neck injuries in the professional sport originated in the scrum. Now, with the opposing front rows of the scrum – the hooker and the props – entering a “pre-bind” before engaging, the speed at which the two sides come together is reduced by 20% to 25%, limiting the number of potentially dangerous scrum collapses.

England captain Chris Robshaw in training last week.


England captain Chris Robshaw in training last week. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

The data, to be shared at the conference of the World Rugby Science Network on Tuesday and Wednesday in Bath and Cape Town, suggests the sport has been made vastly safer at the professional level. In South Africa, the professional game would expect to experience three to four serious spinal injuries a season. There has been none since the protocol was introduced. Data from New Zealand suggests the number of serious injuries emanating from the scrum has been reduced by 50%.

Now the predominant concern in the sport has switched to concussion. Since 2011, the number of concussions recorded by the premiership rugby injury surveillance project, which logs every single injury in the premiership, has shot up. Five years ago there were about four concussions per 1,000 player hours. Today it is closer to 14. What was once a moderate risk injury is now the most common injury facing premiership players.

“Probably in the past we weren’t great examples of what we should be doing when dealing with bruising on the brain,” acknowledged Danny Grewcock, academy director at Bath Rugby and a former England and British Lions player. “We sort of thought ‘Let’s get up and keep going’.”

But Grewcock insists the game is now taking “massive strides” to confront the problem. “We’re more aware of it, whereas in the past we weren’t quite sure,” he said.

This World Cup is the first in which both the independent medic at the match – and the team doctors – will have access to the live television feeds, allowing them to review tackles and injuries so they can gauge whether there is a risk of concussion.

“People have different views as to why concussion has become more common,” said Dr Grant Trewartha, senior lecturer in biomechanics at the University of Bath.

“My view is that concussion is much more on people’s radar now. Historically, it’s been under-reported. But it’s important for a sport, especially a contact sport, to be seen to be proactive on this. I have no problem with people raising the matter of risk. People have to make choices, but they should be making informed choices.”

Trewartha and his colleagues have been monitoring the results of a new warm-up programme, being trialled by several community and secondary school teams, which is designed to prepare a player’s body for the ferocity of the game to come.

Rugby has been slow to embrace this approach, Trewartha believes. He points out that in other sports, notably volleyball, handball, football and Aussie rules, a proper warm-up has been shown to reduce injury by between 30% and 50%.

“A warm-up period helps put a player in a better position if somebody knocks or tackles them,” Trewartha explained. “The body becomes a bit more resilient. This has not really been done in rugby on any large scale.”

The results of the trials should be ready next summer, by when rugby aficionados hope the World Cup will have enthused a new generation, even if some will grumble that the new focus on player safety is overblown.

“I’m sure there’s plenty of people saying, ‘Back in my day we were tougher’,” Grewcock conceded. “People have a romantic view of their time playing, but the simple reality is that we want an attractive, healthy game for the players, the supporters and the sponsors.”

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