The 2015 Rugby World Cup was the biggest in the sport’s history and led to an estimated 30,000 junior players in England taking up the sport, boosting the number of estimated players worldwide to more than 8.5 million.
The ninth Rugby World Cup begins on September 20th and is likely to result in an influx of new players once again. Because it is a physical sport and injuries are common, Mark Fletcher, former head physio of rugby Super League team the Bradford Bulls and Clinical Director at occupational physiotherapy provider Physio Med, has supplied advice and tips to help amateur players prepare for, play and recover from a game as safely as possible.
What are the most common rugby injuries?
One of the most common injuries occurs when a player lands on the side of their shoulder following a tackle. The impact can destabilise the shoulder by damaging the group of muscles that surrounds the shoulder joint – the rotator cuff – and injure the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, which joins the shoulder blade to the collarbone. Injuries to the rotator cuff and the AC joint can take many weeks to heal, making them among the most frustrating injuries a player can suffer.
The knee is another common injury site. Any impact to the outside of the knee causes pressure on the inside, causing injuries to the medial ligament - one of the four main ligaments in the knee. Collectively, these ligaments support the knee and maintain its stability but all four are injury prone and injuries to the anterior cruciate often require surgery which can prevent players playing for several months.
The ankle is also susceptible to injury, especially if it twists inwards as the result of a collision. This can injure the lateral ligament on the outside of the ankle and take several weeks to heal. Because a game of rugby requires players to accelerate quickly, decelerate sharply, twist, turn and change direction, hamstring injuries are also common and repeated hamstring injuries can result in long spells on the sidelines.
How can injuries be avoided?
Playing rugby places great demands on the body’s joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons, so proper preparation is key. This is especially true if it has been a long time since you last played a match, even if you regularly exercise and visit the gym.
The cardiovascular system also needs additional preparation ahead of a game, so increase the amount of exercise you do over a number of weeks before playing to bridge the gap between what you are used to doing and what you will be required to do.
Both strength and flexibility are vital so carry out a well-balanced exercise program in the weeks before your first match. Visiting a massage therapist for a sports massage will also help.
For the first couple of weeks, play for just 30 minutes per match, then gradually build up your game time by 15 minutes per fortnight until you’re able to play a full match. There’s no shame in spending time on the substitutes’ bench!
However, no matter how much you prepare, rugby is an impact sport and if an 18-stone player lands on you, injuries are almost inevitable. If you suffer an injury, seeing a physiotherapist quickly could help you return to action much quicker.
Are there any rugby-specific exercises/stretches players should do to warm up and why?
The best way to avoid injury is a proper warm up to prepare your muscles for the demands of the game and reduce the risk of injury by increasing blood flow. Most people who exercise regularly have a go-to warm up routine so continue with that, then go for a five-minute walk to relax and warm up your muscles.
Then perform some stretches, paying attention to the lower back, shoulders, calves, quads and hamstrings.
To stretch and warm up your lower back, stand with your feet hip distance apart and place both hands on your hips, then gently lean backwards whilst still looking forwards, until you can feel a stretch in you lower back. Hold the stretch for five seconds, then return to an upright position and repeat 15 times.
Next, prepare your shoulders by rotating them ten times clockwise and ten times anticlockwise.
The other key stretches are:
The standing calf stretch
Stand facing a wall and lean against it. Place your left leg slightly behind your right, then bend your right leg while keeping your left leg straight and your heel firmly on the floor. Lean forward until you feel the muscles in the straight leg begin to stretch, then hold for 20 - 30 seconds, swap legs and repeat five times.
Hip adductor stretch
To stretch the group of muscles in your inner thighs, stand with your feet wider than hip width apart and keep your left leg straight, then bend your right knee so that you are supporting your body weight on the side of the knee. Keep your left foot pointing forward. Hold for 20 - 30 seconds, then swap legs and repeat five times.
The standing hamstring stretch
Put your left foot slightly in front of your right with your toes raised. Bend your right knee slightly, keep your left leg straight and lean forward, resting both hands on your right thigh for balance, until you feel light resistance in the back of your leg. Hold for 20 - 30 seconds, then swap legs and repeat five times.
Should players warm down after the first half and/or stretch before the second half?
Only if necessary. Taking the opportunity to rest is a better idea - especially if your coach is discussing strategies – but if a particular area feels tight, stretching the affected area will help.
How else can players prepare for the second half?
You will need to replenish lost fluids, so drink water and/or isotonic sports drinks to boost your energy levels and keep you hydrated.
Be sure not to drink too much, too quickly, as this will make you bloated and uncomfortable.
Small snacks can also help but players generally don’t eat at half time because, if you eat too much, you risk suffering a stitch. Orange segments are a good option as they help maintain hydration, keep the muscles working and provide an energy boost.
What exercises/stretches should you do to warm down after playing and why?
Warming down is as important as warming up, helping reduce the risk of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and cramps and allowing your muscles to recover. Unfortunately, many people don’t realise the importance of a proper warm down and stop dead at the final whistle before jumping in their car and driving home.
At full-time, gently walk around the pitch to let your breathing return to its normal level, help your muscles relax and remove lactic acid build up, which causes soreness. Drink plenty of water to replenish lost fluids and nourish your muscles, then carry out the same exercises and stretches you performed pre-match to help your muscles fully relax.
Next, begin to repair your muscles by eating foods high in carbohydrates and proteins, such as sweet potatoes, pasta, tuna and eggs. Finally, a few days later, go for another sports massage to complete your muscle recovery and help prepare them for your next match and you’ll be dominating the scrum again in no time.