Innovation aims to boost safety for young rugby players

19 June 2020

While concussion is a recognised problem in contact sports like rugby, it is generally accepted that wearing padded headgear does little to mitigate the risk. Collaborative research at the University of Canterbury is now putting that to the test, with an innovative prototype set to be trialled by young rugby players next year.

  • Headgear

    Professor Nick Draper's son, Matt Draper, who represents Ellesmere Rugby, models the headgear prototype at Waihora.

While concussion is a recognised problem in contact sports like rugby, it is generally accepted that wearing padded headgear does little to mitigate the risk. Collaborative research at the University of Canterbury is now putting that to the test, with an innovative prototype set to be trialled by young rugby players next year.

Much has been done to reduce injuries, including concussions, on the rugby field in recent years through programmes like RugbySmart. Sports science and engineering researchers at the University of Canterbury, in conjunction with industry, are now testing whether safe protective headgear could also make a difference.

Spearheading the research is Professor Nick Draper, of UC Education, Health and Human Development. A seasoned rugby coach, he has a particular interest in exploring whether head injury risks in junior rugby players could be reduced through wearing the right protective headgear. Also on the project is Professor Keith Alexander, of UC Mechanical Engineering and renowned inventor of the Springfree Trampoline, along with UC Civil and Mechanical Engineering lecturer Dr Natalia Kabaliuk.

Extensive testing of existing commercial headgear at UC’s Mechanical Engineering Aerodynamics Laboratory indicate that it offers some protection from head-to-head, but not glancing, impacts. Now an innovative prototype – using new materials designed to offer additional protection – has been developed for field testing next year by junior players at Waihora Rugby Club.

Designed at UC and made by sportswear manufacturer Kukri New Zealand, the prototype has exciting potential for boosting safety in the game.

 “Keith and Natalia have brought their scientific and engineering expertise to solving a real-world problem,” says Professor Draper. “In addition, we have these great partnerships with New Zealand Rugby, Canterbury and the Crusaders to run field testing and with Kukri to potentially take it forward into the commercial context.”

Participation by junior Waihora players in next year’s trial will be optional. Field testing will also involve gathering data from special mouthguards equipped with sensors to measure impact forces. 

“We’ve been conducting validation studies, working with Australian company HitIQ on smart impact detection mouthguards, so we can study how much protection our headgear will provide,” Professor Draper says. 

As well, MRI scans will be conducted pre-season, post-season and after any concussive collision as part of the research, supported with a $30,000 grant from Pacific Radiology.

Ellesmere Rugby Manager Michael Sheat fully supports the project’s safety objective and is looking forward to seeing how trials go next year. Waihora Rugby Club President Mike Dixon also welcomes the initiative, saying, “We’re supportive of any innovation that can help kids playing rugby.”

Angus Gardiner, Crusaders General Manager, reinforces that support: “It’s a contact sport and so it can be challenging for some young participants to feel safe. If, in time, there’s a product that’s proven by research to protect the head or give people more confidence to take up the sport that would be a massive positive for everyone.”

Kukri NZ’s General Manager Mark McConnell is impressed by UC’s test chamber capabilities and the research rigor being deployed. “We’re 100 per cent in this for the long haul,” he says.

For further information please contact:

UC Professor Nick Draper, College of Education, Health & Human Development nick.draper@canterbury.ac.nz, Phone: +6433693878

For further information please contact:

UC Communications team, media@canterbury.ac.nz, Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168

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