Bioengineering Helps Make Rugby Safer

A recently published study offers a set of recommendations—based on hard data—to reduce the risk of the head injuries that commonly occur in rugby tackles.

A team of bioengineers has developed a set of recommendations to make impact like this safer at all levels of rugby. (Image courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.)

A team of bioengineers has developed a set of recommendations to make impact like this safer at all levels of rugby. (Image courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.)

In a paper published earlier this month in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, bioengineers from Trinity College Dublin unveiled the results of a multiyear study on the safety of rugby tackles. Using computer modeling techniques in conjunction with 3D motion analysis lab trials of professional rugby players, the researchers were able to determine the effects of different styles of tackling on the body. Based on the results, they determined a number of suggestions for rugby players that could help mitigate the risks of concussions and other head trauma going forward.

The Findings

Rugby is a violent sport by most standards, involving high-impact collisions under relatively uncontrolled conditions hundreds of times in a single match. While many types of injuries can potentially occur in any given match, head injuries are a particular problem that stem from the very nature of the sport. They are in fact so prevalent that concussions have been the most commonly cited match injury in the English Premiership Rugby union for the last six seasons running, accounting for nearly 22 percent of all injuries during that span.

The Trinity College team set out to isolate certain techniques used in rugby tackling that are particularly dangerous from a head trauma standpoint. Among the most significant of their findings was the discovery that tacklers bear a much higher risk of head injury than those being tackled. Through 3D motion modeling based on real rugby players, the researchers were also able to determine that not all tackles were created equal in terms of risk.

At upwards of 77 percent of total tackles, those targeting certain body regions—namely, the upper trunk and lower legs—account for a disproportionate number of head injuries. Contact at high speeds to the upper body can result in concussion-inducing head movement, even if the head isn’t directly impacted. Aiming for an opponent’s mid and lower trunk area can reduce the risk of head injury for both parties involved in the tackle by almost half. Safe tackling techniques are taught to most rugby players from a young age, but this research goes beyond the basics to suggest wholesale changes in how players think about tackling.

The Recommendations

In addition to tackling lower on the trunk, the bioengineers published a full set of recommendations for rugby players to consider that should help lower the sport’s frequency of head trauma. These specific guidelines include taking short, fast steps when approaching a target; never planting one’s feet; and keeping eyes on the ball carrier. This last point forces players to keep their heads up instead of bending their necks and exposing themselves to direct head impact.

Rugby is widely regarded as safer than American football for its tackling rules, but concussions are still a major problem in the sport. This study has found that rugby has major room to improve—without requiring wholesale rule changes. Integrating these recommendations will take time, but the study indicates that there is plenty of potential for risk mitigation with simple changes in how players approach contact.

To learn about other ways bioengineering is working to address concussions across sports other than rugby, check out this article.