Rugby is set to adopt a new approach to contact training following the publication of new guidelines today by World Rugby and International Rugby Players (IRP) aimed at reducing injury risk and supporting short and long-term player welfare.

Leinster Rugby is playing a central role in the study with coach Stuart Lancaster a member of the World Rugby Advisory Group on contact load, as well as Leinster Rugby being on of the 10 teams using instrumented mouth guards to assess the mechanism, incidence and intensity of head impact events.

The guidance is being supported by national players’ associations, national union Directors of Rugby, coaches and clubs.

Earlier this year, World Rugby unveiled a transformational six-point plan aiming to cement rugby as the most progressive sport on player welfare. These new best-practice guidelines on the intensity and frequency of contact training to which professional rugby players should be exposed have been shaped by consultation with players, coaches and leading medical, strength and conditioning, and scientific experts.

Global study

The guidelines are based on a global study undertaken by IRP of almost 600 players participating across 18 elite men’s and women’s competitions, and a comprehensive review of the latest injury data. It reveals that training patterns vary across competitions, with an average of 21 minutes per week of full contact training and an average total contact load of 118 minutes per week. A more measured and consistent approach to training will help manage the Contact Load for players, especially those moving between club and national training environments. The research supports the minimising of the contact load in training, so that players can be prepared to perform but not have elevated injury risk. The guidelines are an attempt to aid with striking that balance.

New ‘best practice’ training contact guidelines

World Rugby and International Rugby Player’s new framework sets out clear and acceptable contact guidelines for training sessions, aiming to further inform coaches – and players – of best practice for reducing injury risk and optimizing match preparation in season. The guidance covers the whole spectrum of contact training types, considering volume, intensity, frequency and predictability of contact, as well as the optimal structure of sessions across the typical training week, including crucially recovery and rest periods.

Recommended contact training limits for the professional game are as follows:

  1. Full contact training: maximum of 15 minutes per week across a maximum of two days per week with Mondays and Fridays comprising zero full contact training to allow for recovery and preparation
  2. Controlled contact training: maximum of 40 minutes per week with at least one day of zero contact of any type
  3. Live set piece training: maximum of 30 minutes set piece training per week is advised

The guidance, which also considers reducing the overall load for players of particular age, maturity and injury profile (in line with the risk factors and load guidance published in 2019), will feature in the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup player welfare standards and it is anticipated that other competitions will follow suit.

Programme of review and research

World Rugby has committed to measuring the ‘real life’ effect of these recommendations. World Rugby is partnering with 10 elite teams (five women’s and five men’s) and assess the mechanism, incidence and intensity of head impact events using instrumented mouth guards and video analysis. Four clubs – Leinster, ASM Clermont Auvergne, the Southland Stags and Benetton Treviso – have signed up to an innovative monitoring programme using instrumented mouthguards which will monitor implementation and measure outcomes in partnership with World Rugby.

Leinster Rugby have worked with Impact Gumshields to customize each players gumshield.

World Rugby Chief Executive Alan Gilpin said: “This important body of work reflects our ambition to advance welfare for players at all levels of the game. Evidence-based, this guidance is based on the largest study of contact training in the sport, developed by some of the best rugby, performance and medical minds in the game. We believe that by moderating overall training load on an individualised basis, including contact in season, it is possible to enhance both injury-prevention and performance outcomes which are good for players, coaches and fans.”

World Rugby Director of Rugby and High Performance and former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt added: “Training has increasingly played an important role in injury-prevention as well as performance over the last decade. While there is significantly 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 the progression, key considerations and volume/intensity of any contact that is done during training.

“These new guidelines, developed by leading experts and, backed by elite players, union directors of rugby and leading competitions, will aid coaches in identifying performance gains through best-practice training and contact limit guidance. It is by necessity a work in progress and will be monitored and further researched to understand the positive impact on player welfare.

“We recognise that community level rugby can be an almost entirely different sport in terms of fitness levels, resources and how players can be expected to train. World Rugby continue to invest in research and as well as trialling law adaptations, focused specifically on the community game for men, women and children, to complement our commitments to player welfare in the professional game.”

World Rugby is also progressing a wide-ranging study of the impact of replacements on injury risk in the sport, a ground-breaking study into the frequency and nature of head impacts in community rugby in partnership with the University of Otago, and further research specific to the professional women’s game. All of these priority activities will inform the decisions the sport makes to advance welfare for players at all levels and stages.