World Rugby backs smart mouthguards, confident issues will be fixed

Tom Christie of the Crusaders tackles Shaun Stevenson of the Chiefs during the Super Rugby Pacific rugby match between the Chiefs and the Crusaders at FMG Stadium in Hamilton, New Zealand on Friday February 23, 2024. Copyright photo: Aaron Gillions / www.photosport.nz
Photo: Aaron Gillions / Photosport

World Rugby has defended the use of smart mouthguards and is confident any problems with the technology will quickly be ironed out.

The governing body has invested several millions of dollars in developing the new technology which can send notifications to pitch-side doctors when a player is impacted.

They have been used in various grades for a couple of years.

They were thrust into the spotlight last Friday, when a delay between the data being collected and transferred from the mouthguards during the Super Rugby Pacific season opener between the Chiefs and Crusaders resulted in players being sent for head injury assessments at incorrectly.

Anton Lienert-Brown after being forced from the field due to an alert from his smart mouth guard.

Anton Lienert-Brown after being forced from the field due to an alert from his smart mouth guard.
Photo: Sky Sport

That led to criticisms of the technology and the timing of its introduction from some coaches and players, including several All Blacks.

The New Zealand Rugby Players Association has also expressed concerns, fearing players might stop wearing the mouthguards if the issues aren’t fixed.

The NZRPA believes the technology has been implemented prematurely in professional rugby.

World Rugby’s Science and Medical Manager, Lindsay Starling, told RNZ she understands where those frustrations are coming from, but she’s adamant the smart mouthguards will become essential tools for player welfare.

“This is a huge piece of work, it’s a change and everybody takes time to adjust to change. There’s a huge need for education in this, and that’s all stakeholders involved in the game from fans to players, so they can truly understand why this is being implemented and what it means,” Starling said.

“World Rugby wouldn’t be implementing this technology if we weren’t confident in it and weren’t confident in the data that it collects. We’ve been testing if for the the last two years and we have more than 100,000 head acceleration points of data that we’ve examined.

“We are confident in the technology, we are confident in how it works and now it’s just about ironing out some teething issues.”

Chiefs centre Anton Lienert-Brown.

Chiefs centre Anton Lienert-Brown.
Photo: Bruce Lim /www.photosport.nz

The data delay in the Chiefs win over the Crusaders caused confusion for players, coaches and spectators, with Anton Lienert-Brown and Quinten Strange seemingly removed from the field for head injury assessments (HIA) after regulation impacts.

Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan said it hindered his decision-making in the 33-29 win.

“We’re all well aware of protocols but Anton didn’t feel like he needed to come off but the medical team here on the sidelines indicated otherwise,” McMillan said.

“The tough thing for us was the game was right in the balance.

“You’re making decisions around do you exhaust your bench, could it go to extra-time, do we need to save somebody and really those decisions got taken away from us.”

Clayton McMillan head coach of the Chiefs during the Super Rugby Pacific rugby match between the Chiefs and the Crusaders at FMG Stadium in Hamilton, New Zealand on Friday February 23, 2024. Copyright photo: Aaron Gillions / www.photosport.nz

Clayton McMillan head coach of the Chiefs during the Super Rugby Pacific rugby match between the Chiefs and the Crusaders at FMG Stadium in Hamilton on 23 February, 2024.
Photo: Aaron Gillions / Photosport

Starling is confident the new technology isn’t slowing the game down.

“We always speak about safety and spectacle in the game, it’s not one or the other, and we don’t believe that this introduction will have any influence on that.

“Typically the time from when an alert has happened until it’s been sent to the match day doctor is under two minutes.

“If you think at the moment around when players are being removed for an HIA with observable signs of concussion, that involves a video review, it involves conversations between various medical professionals on the side of the field, so actually if they are having a knock of this size, the mouthguard technology will make the process ultimately quite quick,” Starling said.

“We see this as a fairly rapid way of getting players assessed so that it doesn’t affect the flow of the game.”

Starling also insists World Rugby isn’t forcing players to wear smart mouthguards.

“The use of the mouthguards isn’t mandatory. A player can opt in or out of wearing one,” she said.

“They are a component know of the head injury assessment protocol and to fully comply with the HIA and have access to all those components, which now includes the mouthguards, the player needs to be wearing the mouthguard to have access to that part.

“But ultimately they are not mandatory for the game. A player can opt out if they don’t want to wear one, if they decide they want to take that risk. Ultimately it is their choice.”

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