Applied sports science research from the University of Bath that has gone on to make rugby safer for the 9 million players around the world is included in a list of ‘most significant’ university breakthroughs compiled by Universities UK, which launches today (Thursday 6 December).

The ‘Best Breakthroughs’ list has been launched to celebrate the inventions, discoveries and social initiatives from UK universities which have had a transformational impact on people’s everyday lives. It is part of the national #MadeAtUni campaign celebrating the differences universities make to people, lives and communities.

'Crouch, bind, set!'

From 2010-13, researchers from our Department for Health led by Professor Keith Stokes and Dr Grant Trewartha worked with the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) and England Rugby to analyse and assess the forces experienced by front row forwards in the scrum. Whilst not common, scrum-related injuries made up around 40 per cent of the catastrophic injuries for players. As a result the focus of the ‘Biomechanics of the Rugby Scrum’ project was to reduce the forces, but to do so with minimal effect on the scrum’s competitive nature.

Working with teams and governing bodies, we developed the pre-binding scrum technique, now known as ‘crouch, bind, set’, whereby front row players bind to the opposition before pushing. This has a significant impact in reducing the forces of engagement by 25 per cent. Trialed by the IRB in May 2013, alongside a suite of five other aspects of law on player welfare, it was subsequently rolled out globally and can now be seen in action week in, week out in every rugby match around the world at all levels.

Described as a ‘seminal moment’ in the development of the sport by Chairman of the IRB Rugby Committee John Jeffrey, ‘crouch, bind, set’ has featured in the Rugby World Cup, the 6 Nations and Rugby Championship. Its long-term impact will be felt for years to come and is hugely significant.

Injury prevention in youth rugby

Building on this work, the team was also central to efforts to enhance player safety through the development of a new injury prevention programme which can be applied specifically for youth and adult community rugby. As part of England Rugby’s RugbySafe programme, we studied injury risk, including concussions, from data of over 2,500 young players and 2,000 adults to demonstrate the dramatic effects a new warm-up programme could bring.

Known as ‘Activate’, the 20-minute pre-activation warm-up routine, which Bath researchers developed, is split into four stages. These focus on balance, strength and agility in order to better prepare players for the physical challenges experienced in the game. The results observed were dramatic.

Findings from the adult community project highlight that concussion injuries could be reduced by up to 60 per cent and lower-limb injuries reduced by up to 40 per cent as a result of players performing the new routine. For youth rugby players aged 14-18, there were equally impressive results, with overall injuries down by 72 per cent and concussions reduced by 59 per cent in those teams that completed the exercises three times per week.

The season-long intervention, which is practised by players both in training and before matches, has since been rolled out across the country by England Rugby and will now introduced internationally by World Rugby. The work was also recognised by the Medical Journalists Association earlier this year.

The research team is now working to ensure Activate is adopted by as many coaches as possible. This complements other projects with potential for significant impact, including a trial in the Championship Cup of a lowered tackle height to reduce head-to-head contact for players.

Carrying on our sporting tradition

Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Bernie Morley said: “Carrying out world-changing research and providing an excellent student experience has always been central to our mission at the University of Bath.

“Across the board our researchers strive to make a difference in addressing key challenges facing society and for different sectors, from healthcare to business.

“For a University with such a strong sporting tradition, in a City with rugby at its heart, it is entirely apt that our work to make the game safer through our applied sports science research is recognised in this way.”

Professor Stokes who led our rugby work added: “The success of our work has been driven by engaging with key partners from the very start of each project, allowing us to focus on relevant questions with the help of the end-users. Taking this approach allows rapid realisation of impact.”

Long-lasting impact

Former England Rugby Captain, current England Rugby Forwards Coach, University of Bath alumni and University Hall of Famer Steve Borthwick said: “Advances to improve player safety in rugby owe much to the research that takes place in UK universities, none more so than that at the University of Bath.

“In partnership with England Rugby and World Rugby, the impact of their work to improve player safety both in relation to the scrum and for youth and community rugby, will be felt by players from around the world for years to come.”

Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK, said: “Universities really do transform lives. The technology we use every day, the medicines that save lives, the teachers who inspire – all come from UK universities and the important work being done by academics up and down the country.

“The UK’s Best Breakthroughs list is a testament to the difference that universities make to people’s lives and we want everyone to join us in celebrating the work they do.”

Both Bath projects involved a number of researchers, past and present, including: Professor Keith Stokes, Dr Grant Trewartha, Dr Simon Roberts, Dr Sean Williams, Dr Dario Cazzola, Dr Ezio Preatoni, Dr Carly McKay and Dr Elena Seminati. Matt Attwood (now Cardiff Met) and Dr Mike Hislop (now World Rugby) were also involved in Activate research as part of their PhDs. Dr Mike England, former RFU community medical director, was also central to the work.

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