We at Sportside welcomed the news this week that contact training in rugby union will be reduced across the game to try to stop so many injuries and protect player welfare.
World Rugby has said it will cap full-contact training at 15 minutes a week after research showed 35-40% of injuries occurred in training.
The organisation consulted six hundred players as well as coaches and strength and conditioning experts before reaching its decision and World Rugby boss Alan Gilpin said: “This reflects our ambition to advance welfare for players at all levels.”
Joe Schmidt, World Rugby director of rugby and high performance and former Ireland head coach, added: “Training has increasingly played an important role in injury prevention as well as performance.
“While there is a lot less full-contact training than many people might imagine, it is our hope that having a central set of guidelines will further inform players and coaches of key considerations for any contact that is done during training.”
The findings from the players consulted by World Rugby were that they were currently experiencing an average of 21 minutes per week of full-contact training, and some would be doing as many as 140 minutes in a heavy week.
As well as the 15-minute limit on full contact training, World Rugby also hopes to cap “controlled contact” training – such as using shields and tackle pads – to 40 minutes per week, with a maximum on set-piece training of 30 minutes per week.
The World Rugby guidance is not compulsory but the organisation expects the guidelines to be adopted at all levels of the game.
The move can be seen as a response to a group of former players who are taking legal action against various rugby governing bodies after being diagnosed with signs of early-onset dementia following their playing careers.
The Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster – who acted as a consultant throughout the process – was also quick to point out the advantages a reduced training load can have on performance, telling the BBC: “We have a responsibility to make the game as safe as possible for all our players. For coaches, optimising training plays a significant role in achieving that objective. It is important that we do not overdo contact load across the week in order that players are fresh, injury-free and ready for match days.”
World Rugby will monitor and review how their guidance is implemented and the impact it has on injuries, with a view to limits on training loads soon becoming mandated with international teams obliged to follow the guidelines in order to compete at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
“It would certainly be our intention to write it into the terms of participation for future Rugby World Cups,” said Mark Harrington, World Rugby director of technical services.
“It is a soft guideline for the minute, but I think over time it will gain some teeth.”
However Australia coach Dave Rennie expressed some reservations about the new proposals, asking the Sydney Morning Herald: “Who’s timing it?”
He added: “I’m sure there has a lot of work that has gone on to come up with these numbers. They’re talking at every level. Are they going to have 1st XV coaches with a stopwatch? I’m not certain how that will pan out.”
Rennie says his chief concern is the impact a reduced workload during the week will have on injuries during matches
“If 35 to 40 per cent of injuries happen at training, that means 60-65 per cent happen in games,” Rennie told the Sydney Morning Herald. “From a training point of view, we’re making sure we’re getting conditioning load and contact load into them so that they can deal with it on game day, and they’ve got the technique required.
“Obviously, the focus around reducing injuries is important. But the most important thing is ensuring our athletes have the skills and the knowledge to deal with the combat.”
He said it was still unclear whether ‘full contact’ included players wearing full body padded suits, as is standard in modern rugby training.
“We suit our boys up a bit. I guess they would still have that full contact, bone on bone. But they’re often in three- or four-minute hits. Tuesday’s training, we had two four-minute blocks where we have full teams going. Eight minutes, bone on bone in that part,” Rennie explained.
“From a set-piece point of view, there is a lot of live mauling. You can’t get away from that in our game. I understand the importance of looking after the athlete, but we also need to understand that they need to be trained, appropriately, to deal with the physical nature of our game.”
By making the game safer for athletes at all levels, World Rugby hopes to be able to increase participation levels across the game, a sentiment welcomed by the home unions.
As the season started a couple of weeks ago, a new joint campaign between the RFU, Scottish Rugby and WRU, all supported by The National Lottery, was launched.
The Pitch Up to Rugby campaign, which also comprised a short film showing volunteers and professionals reminiscing about everything that rugby has given them, reminding players of what they’ve missed and encouraging them to go back to support their local clubs and the volunteers who have done so much to guide their communities through the pandemic.
In a study commissioned by the England, Wales, and Scotland Rugby Unions with The National Lottery, to look at the role community rugby plays in the UK, 86% of people involved in the grassroots game said that playing and being involved in their local team or club has a positive impact on their mental health. Full research findings here.
40% admitted they would feel less involved in their local community if it wasn’t for their rugby club. One in four rugby players and volunteers (27%) stated the single biggest impact being part of community rugby has had is how it has helped them feel less isolated and part of their local area.
For 75% of club rugby players, not being able to properly participate in club rugby has been shown to have had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing, and therefore the chance to return to their club homes is a moment to celebrate.
Over half (58%) stated that what they missed the most was the team chats and camaraderie, and a further 38% said that they missed having rugby as an outlet for day-to-day stresses, exacerbated by the pandemic.
For a third of those connected to community rugby, their club or team is at the centre of their social life, with 51% saying that what they have missed the most about their club over the past 18 months is spending time with their teammates and club friends.
And RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney said: “I’m delighted clubs across the country are able to get all formats of rugby back on the pitch and open their clubhouse doors once again.”
“We know being part of a team is not just something players feel is important to their physical health but also their mental wellbeing and social life, so are excited to be able to show communities up and down the country just what their local rugby club has to offer.”
Rugby is back – but in order to grow the game across the globe, we need to make it safer for everybody.