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Research specialists at Ulster University have been recognised by World Rugby Chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont for contributing towards the largest-ever study completed into digital smart mouthguards, a new innovative technology to help track the level of head impact players experience in elite rugby matches in real-time, overall improving player safety in the sporting game.

World Rugby was the first sporting body worldwide to announce it will be mandatory for all athletes in its elite competitions to wear head-impact-monitoring smart mouthguards currently supplied by ‘Prevent Biometrics’ as one pillar of its updated Head Injury Assessment - however further research was needed to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the new technology.

The Ulster University School of Sport has been involved in developing research to examine the forces a player faces throughout a season and their career and from this develop strategies that will ultimately lead to changes in the game making substantial safety improvements, whilst instilling greater confidence for players and parents in the sport’s safety.

Dr Gregory Tierney, Lecturer in Biomechanics, Ulster University worked in partnership with World Rugby, Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby and Premiership Women’s Rugby to complete several studies using the smart mouthguard technology to better understand the level of impact players experience on the head during matches and training situations using g-forces as a measurement technique.

Explaining the impact this will have in the physical sporting game, Dr Gregory Tierney said: “These studies put in the groundwork so that we can now monitor player head impact exposure in rugby and develop strategies to ensure the game is played in the safest possible manner. Smart mouthguards can aid sideline medical decision making and it is exciting that our research has contributed to World Rugby implementing the technology into the Head Injury Assessment protocol.”

World Rugby Sir Bill Beaumont welcomed the world-leading study, he said: “Using the latest research and technology is at the heart of our six point plan to make rugby the most progressive sport in the world on player welfare. These studies are concrete proof that World Rugby us putting our time, energy and efforts in to back up our words and the insights gained are already helping us make evidence-led moves to make the sport even safer, we will never stand still on player welfare.

“I’d like to thank the players all across the world who took part in the study, what they have helped to shed light on will be invaluable in advancing player welfare in rugby at all levels.  Using this data we can say with some certainty that community and elite level rugby are very much the same game, but played very differently."

World Rugby Chief Medical Officer Dr Eanna Falvey said “It is encouraging to see that alongside our recent research into the health benefits of rugby, we now have the data that offers a more complete picture of what it is like to play our sport.  These studies gives us the ability like never before to understand the causes of head impacts and accelerations and we will leave no stone unturned, making whatever changes may be needed to reduce large forces to the head in our game.”

Two years of trail-blazing research

Following almost two years of trail-blazing research conducted by the Otago Community Head Impact Detection study (ORCHID) a joint project between World Rugby, Prevent Biometrics, New Zealand Rugby, Otago Rugby and the University of Otago has published the first independent, peer-reviewed findings into community rugby. The study measured over 17,000 separate head acceleration events across more than 300 players from senior rugby through to U13s level. Further updates into the women’s community game are currently being prepared for peer review and publication.

This work was followed by the Elite Extension of the ORCHID study in partnership with Ulster University in 2021.

The ORCHID paper shows that in the men’s community game:

  • 86 percent of forces measured are the same as or less than those experienced in other forms of exercise such as running, jumping or skipping
  • 94 percent of forces are lower than those previously measured on people riding a rollercoaster
  • The large majority of events resulting in the highest measured forces are as a result of poor technique in the tackle and at the breakdown

The Elite Extension study also showed that:

  • Most contact events in elite rugby do not result in any significant force to the head.
  • Where low, medium and high force events do occur they are most common in tackles and carries, followed by rucks
  • Both men’s and women’s forwards were more likely to experience force events than backs

World Rugby has already used preliminary findings from the ORCHID study to launch trials of a lower tackle height in the community game.  The international federation has also expanded and improved the range of training for players and coaches available for free online including the Tackle Ready and new Breakdown Ready programmes.

Dr Melanie Bussey, Associate Professor in Biomechanics at the University of Otago said, “Our ultimate goal as researchers is to make a meaningful impact through our work. Therefore, we are extremely pleased to see our work integrated into new strategies and guidelines designed to enhance player safety. We appreciate World Rugby's approach, which granted us the time to ensure robustness in our analysis and the autonomy to let the data speak for itself.

"Looking ahead, we believe that Smart mouthguard technology holds immense potential for advancing player safety and performance analysis in rugby and beyond. Our research has opened doors to a wealth of insights, and we are committed to further exploring this innovative field. We envision continued collaboration with World Rugby and other stakeholders to harness the full potential of this technology, driving advancements that will benefit players and the sport as a whole. The journey has just begun, and we are excited to embark on it."