Evolution of player welfare bringing rugby training out of the Stone Age

New guidelines could see old-school high-aggression training going the way of cavemen

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen: Leinster are among a number of clubs to have signed up to a trial measuring their training and match contact using high-tech mouth guards. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

A triumph of the change in attitude to player welfare is that the famed Leicester Tigers midweek training of 15 years ago now looks like a badly aged, Darwinian parody.

Sessions of survival of the fittest may have served the successful Tigers well. But things often happened. When England captain Martin Johnson laid out Lewis Moody, it wasn’t considered a fight, just a “quick chin”.

When England internationals Neil Back and Julian White had a bust-up, the story goes, "Backy was doing his street fighter thing and getting in close and Whitey throwing these haymakers... there was blood all over the place." Eventually it calmed down, at which point White says, "That's a shame – I was just getting him where I wanted him."

Leo Cullen would have caught a bit of that high-octane aggression when he played in Leicester, so it seems fitting now that Leinster are among a number of clubs to have signed up to a trial measuring their training and match contact using high-tech mouth guards. Player welfare is central.


In addition, new guidelines will take rugby planetary distances from old-school Welford Road as World Rugby and International Rugby Players have set out advised weekly limits for full-contact training of just 15 minutes.

That’s 15 minutes’ full contact a week across a maximum of two days, with Mondays and Fridays comprising zero full-contact training.

Zero contact

In addition, controlled contact should be only 40 minutes weekly, with at least one day of zero contact of any type. Live set-piece training is set at a weekly 30 minutes. All of it is aimed at reducing injury risk and improving performance.

"While there is a lot less contact training than people might imagine, it is our hope that having a central set of guidelines will further inform players and coaches for key considerations of any contact that is done during training," said former Irish coach Joe Schmidt, World Rugby's director of rugby and high performance.

“These new guidelines will be monitored and further researched... we are encouraged by the response we have received so far.”

The guidelines are not law but, given the huge focus on injuries such as concussion and the physical, legal and financial fallout, there is an imperative to follow the science and expert opinion.

The 15-minute number arrives after global consultation with more than 600 players both male and female across elite competitions, with input from leading strength and conditioning, medical and performance experts.

It has been on rugby’s mind for some years now. Players compete in one match at weekends and spend the rest of the time recovering and training for the next game, yet only in recent times has there been focus on the attritional value of the workloads and contact they have midweek. The intensity and frequency of those are critical to player health.

The volume of training undertaken by professional teams accounts for a relatively high proportion of injuries during a season, in the region of 35-40 per cent. The majority of those are soft tissue injuries, whereas most of the contact injuries come from competitive matches.


But, unlike full contact games, the training environment is highly controllable, with the guidelines designed to reduce injury risk and cumulative contact loads to the lowest possible levels that still allow for adequate player conditioning and technical preparation.

Cullen's assistant at Leinster, former England coach Stuart Lancaster, was involved in reviewing the study and contributing to the development of the guidelines.

“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,” said Lancaster.

The contact load is difficult to measure exactly, but an index has been devised where training volume is measured in time and intensity is measured on a 10-point scale from no contact to match-level collisions.

An example would be body-on-body, unrestrained contact with no shields or pads taking place at high speed measuring eight or higher on the scale.

Using shields and pads, with players showing restraint and making contact at lower speeds, would measure a seven or below on the scale, with set-piece training in scrum, maul and lineout considered an eight or higher.

The principles are likely to be the same for men and women, although further research is required. Like Leicester players showing they care by spilling claret on the paddock, the new guidelines do exactly that. Just now, it’s in a different kind of way.