The introduction of a new headguard offers the potential for a revolutionary advancement in safety during gameplay.
For years, rugby players of all ages have been given the same strong caution. While traditional headguards may guard against cuts and scrapes, they do not prevent concussions. A scrum cap that can significantly reduce the risk of brain injuries during physical contact on the field, whether in practice or games, would greatly benefit a sport that is in desperate need of positive advancements.
Numerous companies have attempted, but ultimately failed, to persuade the sport’s governing body that they have discovered the solution. However, there is now great optimism surrounding a potential significant breakthrough. Hedkayse, a Leicestershire-based company known for their cycling helmets, has created a rugby headguard that has been verified by Imperial College, London to decrease the impact of direct head collisions by up to 85%.
Progressive Rugby, a group advocating for player well-being, is eagerly anticipating approval from World Rugby, which is expected to come within the next week. The Enkayse foam used, known for retaining its important properties in extreme temperatures, is designed to protect at body temperature. This makes it valuable for protecting developing brains in schools and for use in the elite club game, making it sought after by potential clients.
After years of research and a combination of misfortune, determination, good fortune, and humor, Hedkayse’s managing director George Fox was motivated to explore better head protection following the tragic loss of a friend in a cycling accident in France almost two decades ago. His skills as a product design engineer caught the attention of the company’s co-founders when they came across videos of him testing body armor by hitting himself with baseball bats. In Fox’s words: “They thought, ‘This guy must be crazy. Would he be willing to design a bicycle helmet?'”
The friendly Fox, known for creating thigh pads for top cricket players, eagerly accepted the task. It required countless attempts and 4,000 revisions before achieving success. A specialist in Somerset helped with the development and molding process using PU foam. The Fox would then analyze the foam, take measurements, assess densities, and conduct impact tests. After many trials, they finally discovered a perfect version that exceeded expectations. It became apparent why this had not been done before, as it proved to be extremely challenging.
Another fortunate coincidence occurred when I ran into Tim Stimpson, a retired professional rugby player from England. He expressed interest in finding a way for his children to safely participate in the sport while also addressing the issue of former players struggling with memory loss. This led to a discussion about creating a headguard that could cater to both kids and adults.
A significant milestone is approaching this month when Bristol Bears player Max Lahiff debuts the headguard in a Premiership match. As the team’s RPA representative, the 33-year-old has been trying out the headguard during training for several months.
He initially had some minor issues with keeping it securely in place during scrums and mauls, but he is now a devoted supporter. He states, “It doesn’t feel much different from any other scrum cap. On colder days, it may feel slightly stiffer compared to other headguards, but once it warms up, it becomes very flexible and comfortable.”
The emphasis is placed on preventing injuries instead of encouraging players to take reckless risks. “I believe this strikes a balance. You want something that doesn’t give you a false sense of invincibility, but still effectively does its duty.”
According to Lahiff, there is an added benefit. The intense and physical nature of rugby is a major draw for many. It’s important to strike a balance between maintaining this essence and avoiding making it too tame.
Primarily, the potential long-term advantages for brain health would be significant. In one’s youth, they are typically energetic and spirited, not giving much thought to these matters. However, after experiencing several concussions and observing prominent players showing signs of dementia at a young age, the concern becomes more prominent. It could potentially be a tremendous advantage and act as a protective barrier in preventing a decline in brain function.
Some of his teammates are not eager to adopt this advanced science. Lahiff had planned to wear the new headguard during the game against Saracens last week, but it was taken by someone else before he could. He has also received friendly teasing from Ellis Genge and others in the dressing room about wearing it.
Lahiff stated that some people compare his appearance to characters from the X-Men, such as Magneto or Juggernaut. He described his scrum-cap as being bulkier and more visually appealing compared to others, adding a unique aesthetic to the game. He also noted that rugby players tend to closely examine anything out of the ordinary.
Once World Rugby’s decision is announced, there is expected to be considerable interest. The Hedkayse headguards, which have global approval, will be on sale for £100 to £120 each.
Could rugby be on the verge of getting a pre-Christmas bonus with the support of scientists, medics, administrators, and players? It seems to be a potentially safer sport.