Rugby union is to become the world’s first sport to use technology to automatically withdraw players with a suspected brain injury from the field of play, the Guardian can reveal.
World Rugby is expected to confirm within the next 48 hours that it will adopt smart mouthguard technology, which measures the G-force of every head impact in real time, in all its elite matches to help make the game safer.
The technology, which works by using bluetooth to immediately alert an independent doctor whenever a player suffers a big collision in a tackle or ruck, will be debuted in the WXV women’s match between Italy and Japan on 13 October. It will then be rolled out into the men’s professional game in January, in time for the Six Nations.
One source told the Guardian that the technology was a “potential gamechanger” as around 15% of concussions in rugby union only become apparent when a player reports them after a match.
The new approach will ensure that anyone who suffers a crunching hit that is not spotted by TV cameras – or who does not show concussion signs and symptoms straight away – will no longer remain on the pitch.
Instead, when the mouthguard registers an acceleration above 70g and 4000 radians per second squared for men – and 55gs and 4000 rad/s2 for women – it will immediately ping an alert to an app that is being watched by an independent doctor.
As soon as that happens the player will also be taken off and have to undergo a head impact assessment. Even if they are cleared to play, they will then be checked again after the match, and again two days later.
Players will also be asked to wear their mouthguards in training to build up a better picture of the forces and load that their heads are subjected to over the weeks and months of a season.
It is understood that the technology will form part of a wider package of player welfare measures to be announced by World Rugby, which also includes extending the return to play guidelines for community rugby to a minimum of 21 days.
As things stand, the overwhelming majority of players wear mouthguards and the expectation is that almost all will switch to the £250 smart ones, which will be funded by World Rugby.
However those who do not will become subject to the “recognise and remove” policy used in community rugby. That means if they suffer a head impact that could be a concussion they will automatically have to sit out for the rest of the game, rather than undergoing the in-game head impact assessment.
World Rugby’s £4.5m investment in smart mouthguard technology and player welfare over the past three years comes as collision and combat sports continue to wrestle with how to keep players safe – and have had to deal with lengthy and protracted lawsuits from former players.
In 2020 World Rugby, along with the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby, were accused by over 200 former players of failing to take reasonable steps to protect players from brain injuries caused by repetitive blows. More recently, amateur players have also launched legal cases.
In an attempt to make the game safer, World Rugby has introduced a number of measures, including lowering tackle heights. However it has decided to go further after trialling the Prevent Biometric 2.0 mouthguard in English rugby as well as Currie Cup and Farah Palmer Cup in the southern hemisphere.
While smart mouthguards have been around for several years, it is only recently that advances in technology have enabled data to be transmitted in real time rather than having to be downloaded after a match. They have also become smaller and more comfortable to wear, making them more acceptable to players.
The new technology is also unlikely to slow the game down. At the moment there is around one head impact assessment a match on average in elite rugby, and the use of the smart mouthguards is expected to double that.