World-first study to see if headgear actually protects young rugby players


July 10, 2021

In a world first, a Canterbury youth rugby team will be monitored for an entire season – undergoing MRI scans and wearing hi-tech mouth guards which record tackle impacts – to test the effectiveness of protective headgear.

The investigation comes amid growing concern about health and safety in the sport and the ongoing debate around whether soft-shell headgear should be compulsory for younger players.

Data obtained by Stuff in 2018 showed the number of concussions lodged with ACC for junior rugby players was at a five-year high across nine of the 13 regions.

The new two-year trial will investigate whether headgear can help prevent collision-related injuries in junior rugby players.

It will be led by University of Canterbury (UC) professor Nick Draper, who is also an experienced junior rugby coach.

His three sons – aged 9, 13, and 15 – all play rugby, and he understands the concerns parents have around the potential for head injuries.

“There are parents who are choosing not to let their children play rugby as more concussion cases come to light,” he said.

“I think as researchers and as a university, we have a responsibility to the community to find ways to make the game safer for our children.”

University of Otago study to understand the nature and frequency of head impacts is also under way, and the issue of head injuries and concussions in rugby is an increasingly hot topic.

In the UK, a group of players has prepared lawsuits against the English RFU, the Welsh Rugby Union, and global governing body World Rugby, claiming negligence.

Steve Thompson, one of the ex-players suffering early dementia symptoms in their 40s, says he cannot remember any of England’s matches at the 2003 World Cup, while injured All Blacks captain Sam Cane has spoken of his concerns about his future health after suffering several head knocks.

A number of All Blacks – including Ben Afeaki and Ben Smith – have experienced concussion over the years, while James Parsons recently ended his playing career due to lingering concussion symptoms.

Concerns about concussion go beyond rugby. In America, the NFL has been sued by thousands of former American Football players over repeated head trauma, with a settlement of $1.44 billion (US$1b) upheld in 2016.

Draper has secured more than $100,000 funding from Canterbury Medical Research Foundation (CMRF) to carry out the two-year study and has teamed-up with Waihora Rugby Club, in Tai Tapu.

A group of 40 players will be monitored, and they will have the option of wearing World Rugby approved N-Pro headgear or not.

The trials will try to accurately assess the number and size of collisions in rugby and find out if wearing headgear can reduce “peak acceleration” collision forces.

“We’re following the players to understand collisions in more detail. The players will wear instrumentive mouth guards, so we can record impact forces in the event of a collision,” Draper said.

The games will also be filmed to verify a collision took place and the “collision events” will be recreated in the laboratory to assess their impact.

Under current rules, “a player may wear headgear which complies with the requirements as set out in the World Rugby headgear performance specification”.


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