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Rugby: upper trunk tackles linked to higher injury risk

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New research has identified a safer way to make rugby tackles which reduces the risk of head injury.

Bioengineers at Trinity College Dublin assessed how head impacts and movement vary based on the position on the body where tackles are made.

They discovered that tacklers are at higher risk of a head injury assessment (HIA) than ball carriers, and that tackles made to the lower trunk of the ball carrier’s body (roughly around the pelvis) — as opposed to the upper trunk (chest and shoulders) or upper legs (thighs and knees) — lead to a reduced risk of tacklers receiving HIAs.

It was also found that high-impact tackles to the upper trunk (with no head contact) can cause head motion in the ball carrier similar to that reported for concussion injuries, but tackling the mid/lower body trunk could reduce this by around 50%.

Based on computer modelling and 3D motion analysis lab trials, the researchers compiled a set of recommendations aimed at significantly reducing concussions and other head injuries in rugby union.

Specific recommendations for tacklers include:

– Make contact at the lower trunk

– Take shorter, faster steps when approaching the ball carrier

– Avoid planting feet

– Keep head up and face the ball carrier

– Do not look at the ground

– Place head on the correct side of the ball carrier

The work was conducted over a number of years by Associate Professor Ciaran Simms and PhD researcher Gregory Tierney from Trinity’s School of Engineering and Centre for Bioengineering, with findings published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport and the Journal of Biomechanics and other journals.

Professor Simms said: “The physical and high-impact nature of rugby union has made head injuries and long-term brain health a concern, and the 2016-17 English Premiership rugby union season was the sixth consecutive one in which concussion was the most commonly reported match injury — contributing to 22% of all match injuries during that season. Our findings have helped us better understand the mechanisms of head impacts in rugby union and resulted in these recommendations, which we hope may guide prevention strategies and reduce head injury assessment risks for athletes.”

Coaching strategies should emphasise tackling at lower risk body regions such as the lower trunk, Tierney explained.

“Furthermore, there needs to be a greater focus placed on safe contact technique in the tackle,” he added. “We identified easy-to-coach characteristics, such as keeping your head up, eyes on the ball carrier and feet active, that can really help reduce head injury assessment risk. Surprisingly, these characteristics are not always exhibited by elite players.”