Technology in Rugby Equipment
Tri Nations 2010
What is Rugby?
It is an undisputed fact that rugby union is the greatest sport on the face of the planet*. I actually live in Rugby; just a few miles away from the spot where a commemorative stone at Rugby School claims that William Webb Ellis "with a fine disregard for the rules of football...first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game."
Rugby is a game played by two competing teams of 15 players, roughly split into 8 forwards and 7 backs. The characteristic egg-shaped ball can only be thrown backwards; greater territorial gains can be made by kicking the ball forward. A match is split into two 40 minute halves, although matches tend to last a little longer as the referee can stop the clock to deal with injuries or transgressions as he or she sees fit.
The aim of the game is to score more points than the opposing team. There are several ways to achieve this:
- A placed Penalty kick results after certain infringements. Successful place kicks score 3 points.
- A drop goal that passes between the posts also scores 3 points. This only counts if the ball strkes the floor before the player strikes it with his boot (hence "drop goal"). This can be attempted at any time.
- A try is worth 5 points and is awarded for a team member crossing the opposing team's try-line and placing down the ball (throwing the ball down, or spiking, merely results in a knock-on).
- After a try, the scoring team has the opportunity to score again with a place kick taken at any point immediately behind where the try was scored. This is worth 2 points.
Players may tackle one another by making contact with the shoulder and then wrapping arms around their opponent, in an attempt to bring them down to the floor. The contact area is heavily policed, with a huge number of rules governing when and where a player may enter contact. The video shows pretty much every aspect of a rugby union match, played between two of the greatest teams in the world: New Zealand (the All Blacks) and Australia (the Wallabies) in the Four Nations tournament** - the premier international tournament of the Southern Hemisphere (analogous to the 6 Nations in the Northern Hemisphere).
Rugby is a physical, full contact sport. Like any similar sport, there is an abundance of equipment and technology available to maximise performance and minimise injury.
(*This may not be a fact.)
**Formerly the Tri-Nations until the addition of Argentina to the Tournament in 2012.
Rugby EquipmentClick thumbnail to view full-size
History of Rugby Equipment
Equipment in Rugby has undergone a transformation - particularly since the game turned professional in 1995. With an influx of money into the game, every edge is being sought:for example - baggy, collared rugby shirts have been replaced by skin tight, breathable technical jerseys.
Recent times have seen:
- The advent of rugby mitts to improve grip;
- Camera technology and the television match official;
- Wind-tunnel technology in the development of new rugby balls;
- The scrum cap - historically the preserve of the forwards - now being used more widely amongst players;
- Individually tailored hydration and nutrition.
Even cryogenics have been introduced into professional rugby. Wales' famed stamina in both the 2011 Rugby World Cup and 2012 Six Nations championships is being put down to, at least in part, the use of cryotherapy. This technique is used to flush lactic acid out of the player's muscles, allowing them to train harder and longer. The extreme cold also dampens the nervous system, deadening pain and late onset muscle soreness.
Why is a Rugby Ball Egg-Shaped?
The rugby ball's shape gives it the characteristic unpredictable bounce (Rule 1: NEVER let a rugby ball bounce). The shape is a relic of the materials used to make the first balls: pig bladders. These structures had to be blown up solely by lung power - an uneviable job as the bladders would be fresh from the animal at the time! When fully inflated, the bladder was an oval/plum shape. The bladder was then encased in leather and stitched closed.
Today, we use synthetic bladders and the skin hasn't been made from leather since the 1980s. The material used to make the balls has changed because leather had the tendency to change shape over the course of the game. Balls are still hand-stiched, however, using waxed thread.
Rugby balls are now tested in wind tunnels and with sophisticated modelling software to maximise aerodynamic efficiency and grip in slippery conditions.
Scrum Half/Fly Half
Flat kicking area (tongue to cover laces)
Higher cut with extra ankle support
Lower cut for extra mobility
How to Choose Rugby Boots
Rugby Boots come in a plethora of shapes, stud lengths and arrangements, and sizes. The first thing you take into account when selecting your boots is your position: forward or back.
Forwards need a lot of grip in the scrum, ruck and maul. The front 8 also tend to lack lightening pace, and so are unconcerned with their footwear taking the edge of their pace.
For the backs, their key weapons are pace and agility. They need a boot that allows them to get off the mark quickly and to dance into the tightest of spaces. As such, backs tend to favour lightweight boots with fewer studs and a lower cut for flexibility
If you do a lot of kicking (scrum half, fly half etc) you may wish a tighter fitting, light boot to improve the accuracy of your kicking game. Many professionals are now turning to soccer boots.
When selecting your boot, brand and style should be the LAST thing on your mind. This is the most important piece of equipment you will buy and it is important you are happy with them. Even if you intend buying online, get into a shop and try the boot on first. Also:
- Wear your rugby socks to ensure they fit
- Check customer reviews
- Try to buy your boots towards the end of the rugby season - you can get ludicrous discounts
- Aim for leather of a leather/synthetic mix. This will put up the price but the boot will last longer.
How to Choose a Gum Shield
Not just to prevent your teeth getting knocked out, but also to prevent concussion - gum shield is one of the few mandatory pieces of equipment in Rugby. Everyone has a different mouth, so every gum shield must be moulded perfectly to the player's upper mouth. There are two ways of obtaining a gum shield:
- Speak to your dentist
- Buy a boil-in-the-bag variety
Regardless of which you choose, take careful account of the fitting and wearing instructions. Many brands come with tens-of-thousands of dollars of dental insurance, which is invalidated if you do not mould or wear the mouthguard correctly. If in doubt, speak to your local rugby club or dentist.
Buy a brand you feel comfortable with, but do not scrimp on this piece of equipment. An ill-fitting or poor-quality gum shield may result in you receiving a severe concussion or a hefty dental bill, all for the sake of a few dollars.
Do Rugby Players Wear Body Armour?
Yes and No. Unlike American Football, the wearing of solid body protection is illegal in Rugby. The IRB do permit the wearing of foam cushioning - such as that seen in rugby shoulder pads and scrum caps. The IRB states:
No part of the pads may be thicker than 1cm when uncompressed. No part of the pads may have a density of more than 45kgs/m3
Shoulder pads were first developed to prevent (or at least minimise) shoulder injuries sustained during impact. This piece of equipment has since evolved to protect a number of other areas. Modern equipment now sports sternum, bicep, and kidney pads in an attempt to offer some protection in contact.
Recent medical studies have shown that, while the pads do reduce peak impact force, the greater the force, the lower the force attenuation (although the studies showed large inconsistencies between repeats.) This could mean that the harder the hit, the lower the protection.
Regardless, I have tried playing rugby with and without these pads - I won't be repeating the latter. In addition to more bruising and sore shoulders, it was the lack of the psychological benefit of wearing these pads. Whilst it is important to remember that they do not make you invincible, the boost in confidence actually reduces injuries caused in tackling. If you don't hit hard and confidently in rugby, you get hurt.
What is a Scrum-Cap for?
Let's get something straight - scrum caps are not helmets. Like tackle pads, they are made out of foam and are a matter of a few millimeters thick.
Scrum caps were initially developed to prevent forwards in the scrum from developing cauliflower ear due to the intense friction (this is the reason that many rugby players wear tape around their heads - it minimises the rubbing between ear and head.) Recent times have seen players in the back positions - notably Leigh Halfpenny of Wales - sporting the headguards. So what is the benefit?
The cushioning lessens some of the blows that can be sustained in contact or at the bottom of a ruck. Importantly, a scrum cap also dramatically reduces the chances of the thin skin on your head being split open. With your ears protected, a scrum cap also prevents tears and cuts to these delicate structures - an unprotected earlobe will not win a confrontation with a rugby boot.
What is the TMO?
The TMO - "Television Match Official" - was first introduced during the 2003 Rugby World Cup and has been a support to the referee ever since in top-flight games. Unlike in American Football, where officials can signal when they notice an infringement, the TMO can only rule on a question asked by the referee. Furthermore, they can only make decisions on certain rules:
- Where the scoring of a try is unclear due to infringement or if the player is in touch - as in the try in the video above (Any reason why I may not award the try?);
- Where the grounding of a try is unclear (Try. Yes or No?);
- If a kick at goal was successful;
- If a ball is dead or not.
There is a growing call for the remit of the TMO to be extended so that the referee may call on replays and cameras for decisions in the middle of the field.