The Roar
The Roar


The case for real helmets in rugby

Roar Guru
7th May, 2011
2511 Reads

Break an ankle, rupture an ACL, dislocate a shoulder and with good medical treatment and the right kind of rehabilitation, a rugby player will eventually be back on the field, little the worse for wear. But that isn’t necessarily so if a player suffers a concussion which, make no mistake, is a brain injury.

Once a player sustains a concussion, he has to cross his fingers that it doesn’t happen again, because if it does, he may be advised to call it a day.

And this kind of injury keeps happening to players at all levels.

Berrick Barnes had to sit in the stands for a while, and now Richie McCaw has had to withdraw from a game citing post-concussion precaution.

Apart from the danger to the players themselves, are we as spectators, to be denied the pleasure of seeing star players perform?

By the time various worldwide comps are completed and the World Cup rolls around, it’s a lottery as to who will be ruled out due to a concussive knock.

Maybe, it’s time the IRB allowed helmets in rugby. But when I make that suggestion, I’m not talking about the kind worn in American football.

I’m talking about the kind worn in ice hockey, which is a much smaller helmet – more of a cap that sits on top of the skull.


There’s been quite a lot of thought put into designing better hockey helmets, particularly in Canada at the University of Ottawa’s impact science lab.

Traditionally, a hockey helmet’s shell is made of vinyl nitrile, a substance that disperses force from the point of contact.

The liner is usually made of expanded polypropylene foam. But a newer design, called a Shock Bonnet, is more flexible, conforms to the wearer’s head, and is separated from the external shell by a set of 18 hollow thermoplastic shock absorbers.

On impact, these absorbers compress to suck up the energy of a hit.

The suggestion of such a helmet for rugby will inevitably introduce the ‘seat belt’ argument.

It was once thought that putting seat-belts in cars would make drivers feel invulnerable and therefore drive recklessly.

But when belts were introduced, it was found that driving patterns didn’t change.


Similarly, introducing hockey-style helmets to rugby wouldn’t result in reckless play because, like Sydney-driving, it’s already on the edge of reckless.

The rugby pick-and-drive is a head-first charge.

But it’s not met head-on, so they’d be no question of a helmet-protected head-to-head contest mainly because rugby players know that that’s a good way to break a neck vertebrae.

A well-designed rugby helmet would protect against the errant knee or elbow in a tackle or at the breakdown.

And those kinds of collisions are becoming more fraught as players get bigger and bulkier.

When you have people like Guthro Steenkamp or Neemia Tialata, both around 1.87m, 127kg, charging into rucks, you don’t want your unprotected head in the way.

However, it must be stated that even the newest and best helmets wouldn’t eliminate rugby concussions.


But neuro-researchers around the rugby-playing world agree that hockey-style shell helmets would certainly reduce their likelihood, and when they did occur, make them less severe.