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Rugby research tracks player injuries

Rugby research tracks player injuries
For AUT University’s Kelly Sheerin, the Rugby World Cup experience isn’t quite finished.

Research officer Kelly Sheerin has been following the Rugby World Cup more closely than most Kiwis, tracking data on injuries from all 600-plus players from 20 teams.

It’s been an exciting few months for rugby fans and a busy time for New Zealanders in general hosting the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Now that it’s over, it’s back to business as usual for most of us. But for AUT University’s Kelly Sheerin, the Rugby World Cup experience isn’t quite finished.

Sheerin is research officer at the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand (SPRINZ) and manager of the AUT Running Mechanics Clinic. And he currently has another important focus: collecting data on player injuries for a study commissioned by the International Rugby Board (IRB).

Dr Steve Targett, medical director for both the IRB and the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), recommended Sheerin for the job, which has seen him working for the IRB alongside investigator Dr Colin Fuller from the University of Nottingham. Dr Fuller led the 2007 version of the player-injury study.

“Colin has a huge amount of experience working with rugby,” says Sheerin, “and has undertaken similar research for FIFA in a wide range of international football tournaments.”

AUT University has a working relationship with the NZRU and the organisation wanted someone with an injury and research background. Sheerin’s unique combination of physiotherapy training, biomechanics and injury experience, and research skills made him the perfect fit for the job.

Over the last two months, he has been tracking all 600-plus players from the 20 teams both on the field and during training.

Being at all 48 games was impossible – though Sheerin did attend all the Auckland games – so injury data was collected from the medical teams of each nation.

The study looked at the incidence of match and training injuries, as well as their location, type, and severity. In order to provide a comparison across all sports, injuries are measured per 1000 playing hours. The 2007 study revealed 84 injuries per 1,000 playing hours, most of which were sustained in the tackle.

“We haven’t been focusing too much on individual players , but more on the patterns that emerge,” says Sheerin. “The aim is to help the IRB make rugby a safer game, not just for the elite players but for school kids playing the game. The IRB has a vested interest in the game and player welfare is very important, which is why they invest so much time and money into these studies.

They have made subtle changes in the rules over the years so they need to ascertain what implications these rule changes have had on injuries, and whether, going forward, anything else needs to change.”

One obvious area where rule changes have had an impact is around engagement in the scrums, which have been slowed down, with the referee given much more control. One of the reasons this has probably come about, Sheerin says, is because of the neck and spinal injuries occurring at lower levels of the game.

But he’s also interested in any new findings on athlete training. Do players need to be prepared differently to decrease the incidence of injury? And what impact, if any, do local factors, such as playing surfaces and environmental conditions have on injury rates?

As with all academic research, impartiality and confidentiality are essential features of this study.

“When we began, we knew there was the potential that some teams might want to downplay their injuries and keep certain information to themselves. While 90 percent of the injuries will be public – you’ll see them on the field – there’s the 10 percent that teams may not want out there.

“Confidentiality has been key, which is why I’m the only one, even within the IRB team, who has seen the raw information.

Although I’m a New Zealander, this is not an NZRU project – it’s an international project, so the New Zealand team hasn’t received any extra information out of this in any way.”

It’s been an exciting project for Sheerin and he is keen to play a role in future international research in this area.

“Getting into something like this is a massive goal for me personally and for AUT. We’d love to be involved in an ongoing basis – whether that’s in future Rugby World Cups or if we can start to use these skills and knowledge in the New Zealand environment with the NZRU, Super 14 rugby or the ACC.”