UP researchers predict injuries in super rugby teams

Posted on July 31, 2018

A study recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by University of Pretoria (UP) researchers found that there is a considerably higher match injury incidence in South African Super Rugby teams, where each team can expect to have two injuries occur per match.

The study was led by Prof Martin Schwellnus, Professor of Sport and Exercise Medicine and Director of UP’s Sport, Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Institute (SEMLI). It followed 482 players over five Super Rugby seasons (2012 – 2016) during training and match time, recording the injuries that occurred during a total of 93 641 player hours. This is the largest study conducted to date in this tournament.

The study revealed that about 50% of all players can expect to suffer a time loss injury each season, which prevents the player from playing in matches or training for more than one day.  Almost a third of players can expect to have an injury resulting in eight or more days off from training/match play, and one in eight players will sustain a severe injury that puts them out for more than 28 days, according to Prof Schwellnus.

The results from the five-year study revealed a total of 936 time loss injuries, of which, understandably, the vast majority (85.7%) occurred during matches and 14.3% occurred during training – a 62 times higher chance of getting injured in matches than during training. Most of these match injuries occurred in contact situations, with more than half of all injuries occurring during a tackle specifically. 

Furthermore, eight percent of players suffered a minimal injury, 12% suffered mild injury, 17% suffered a moderate injury and 12% suffered a severe injury resulting in at least 28 days of time loss.  Also, 50% of all the match injuries occurred in players’ legs (mostly in the thigh and knee), followed by the arms/shoulders (mostly the shoulder/clavicle). Less common were head/neck injuries (16%) and injuries to the trunk (11%). 

Prof Schwellnus said “Rugby union is a contact sport involving frequent high-impact collisions. As a result, it has one of the highest rates of injury incidence among team sports. This years’ Super Rugby tournament is testament to this with headlines of injury crises in several teams, and key Springbok players not able to participate in important games this year.”

He said World Rugby, the international governing body for rugby union, periodically introduces changes to the laws of the game to enhance the playing and spectating experience and improve player welfare. Such law changes likely alter team strategy and player demands and may affect injury patterns over time. “There is therefore a need to conduct research studies over a number of seasons in order to analyse changes in injury profiles and introduce prevention programmes.”

The possible causes of injury are varied and complex, and could include conditioning levels, injury prevention and management procedures, or the travel demands during a tournament. Nevertheless, alarming statistics such as these call for the development of evidence-based, targeted interventions and guidelines for injury risk reduction (such as rule changes or the modification of players’ technique), since the effect of injury on player performance, health and career advancement, not to mention overall team performance can be devastating. 

Prof Schwellnus and his research team at SEMLI, in collaboration with the South African Rugy Union and the medical doctors of the South African Super Rugby teams, have already started designing, implementing and testing these vitally important injury prevention programmes.

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- Author Prof Martin Schwellnus

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