World Rugby will introduce fresh guidelines designed to reduce the amount of contact training done by rugby players. The game’s governing body, which worked with the representative body International Rugby Players (IRP), hopes a six-point checklist will help to reduce training-related injuries and improve performance by limiting players’ contact load between matches.
The guidelines recommend restricting midweek contact training to two days broken down into three categories: 15 minutes per week of full-contact training during which players are unrestrained and operate at high speed in body to body collisions, 40 minutes of controlled contact utilising tackle shields and pads, running at reduced speeds, and 30 minutes of live set-piece training with lineouts, scrums and mauls at a high intensity.
A global survey of 600 players revealed that elite professionals undergo at most 19 minutes of full contact training in the week before a Test match. “There is a misconception that there is a lot of contact training but it’s less than you would assume,” said Joe Schmidt, the former Ireland coach and now World Rugby’s director of rugby. “It’s 19 minutes at the elite and 21 minutes across the professional level. We feel we can reduce it even further.”
“Being a professional coach for 20 years, I found that we did very little contact training. The amount of weeks I coached where we didn’t do any full contact in a week would be more often than not.”
The former All Black centre Conrad Smith, speaking as the IRP’s head of player welfare, concurred: “I never had a training injury for my whole 15 years of playing and I never witnessed a lot of training injuries. I never met these limits, 15 minutes [of contact training] would have been the maximum for me.”
World Rugby has come under pressure from lobbying groups. Last December the former England and Lions hooker Steve Thompson led a group of retired players in a landmark legal case against WR, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia. The group also released a set of 15 changes to try to minimise long-term brain injuries.The second item on the list was the demand for a reduction in contact training, citing the National Football League (NFL) which placed limits on full-contact training back in 2011. According to Éanna Falvey, WR’s chief medical officer, this is not a neat comparison as the NFL is contested by 32 teams that are more easily regulated. Furthermore, 70 to 80% of NFL player injuries occur during training compared to 30 to 40%in rugby.
However, a study released this year by the University of South Wales found that rugby players can experience a reduction in blood flow to the brain and cognitive function as a result of the cumulative effect of repetitive contact and not one-off incidents of concussion, further emphasising the need for a reduction in full-contact where possible.
Even without the guidelines, World Rugby argues that the game is a much safer environment than it was when Thompson was playing in the first two decades of the professional era. This is less true at lower levels which is why WR has provided a six-point checklist for coaches to better protect their players by identifying and planning for the four “contact elements”. These are the volume of full-contact in minutes, the intensity of the collisions, the density of the impacts within the timeframe and the unpredictability of the hits.