How Effective is Rugby Equipment?

There are hosts of rugby players who succumb to the traditions of the sport and the reputation and stature of the men (and women) who play the game. Their choice of equipment deemed necessary for the game might simply include an iron will, good luck, and specific clothing to wear. This historical mentality begs the question: how effective is rugby equipment?

A scrum cap is the first thing that comes to mind. Many tight-fivers consider them a necessity, while other players deride their popularity as a sign of weakness. Since the beginning, the caps were only intended to protect the ears from abuse during scrums and close contact with groups in mauls and rucks. The thinly-padded cloth helmets did little to protect the head and neck from a hard knee or an overextension at high speed.

Even incidental contact without protective rugby equipment can generate bruises, cuts, and concussions from knocking heads with others during a match. The IRB (International Rugby Board) standards for such equipment still seem woefully inadequate for players concerned about preventing head trauma caused by playing rugby. Protective vests and shoulder pads are available, but are rarely worn on the Rugby Union field.

The few studies that have been done, including one published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in February 2005, conclude that the current equipment available for protecting the body are ineffective at preventing more serious injuries, and that developments in designing better gear remains paramount.

That, combined with the fact that significant groups of players do not wear what little gear is available, makes it easy to see why injuries are so prevalent in the sport.

Mouth guards seem to be one protective piece that most players wear regularly. Perhaps the vanity involved with the prospect of missing or chipped teeth is more important to individual team members than a knock on the head or a sturdy limp from a deep thigh bruise or a pulled groin.

A sturdy pair of boots is another popular rugby equipment choice, but again, the fact that they are required for the rugby field and offer a fashionable unity for players on the same team is as much the reason for their popularity as protecting one’s feet from injury.

The more traditional and routine rugby equipment widely used also has more to do with aesthetics than protection. Greasepaint, shin pads, and medical tape may give a player a sense of community and help them feel more prepared for the game, but they do little to prevent torn ligaments, twisted ankles, and broken bones.

The worldwide popularity of the sport questions the logic of such a majority of sportsmen who would engender self-abuse and risk of injury in the name of country or fellow man. Proving ourselves on the playing field is something we do in business and sport, but protecting ourselves from the elements during battle should be part of the equation, at least psychologically.

Advocacy for improving rugby equipment standards is the only thing that will improve standards and reduce the amount of injuries that men and women experience during match play. When the sport starts worrying more about its players than its team, rugby may lose a bit of “killer instinct,” but will surely gain a less damaging and expensive legacy.