Rugby players of all ages have received the same stern warning for decades. Traditional headguards may protect against cuts and abrasions but they don’t prevent concussions. A scrum cap that can substantially help to mitigate the risk of brain injuries in contact situations on the field, both in training and matches, would be a gamechanger for a sport very much in need of some positive developments.
Many manufacturers have tried – and failed – to convince the sport’s governing body they have found the answer. Finally, though, there are high hopes of a genuine breakthrough. A Leicestershire-based company called Hedkayse, who initially specialised in cycling helmets, have designed a rugby headguard that, according to data ratified by Imperial College, London, reduces the force of direct head impacts by up to 85%.
The player welfare lobby group, Progressive Rugby, are also keenly awaiting the green light of official endorsement from World Rugby, which could be forthcoming within the next week or so. Crucially, the special impact foam involved, Enkayse, retains its vital qualities in extreme heat or cold and is specifically optimised to protect at body temperature. From schools – where there is an obvious need to look after developing brains – to the elite club game, there are potentially grateful clients everywhere.
It has taken years of research to reach this point, along with a mixture of tragedy, perseverance, luck and humour. The managing director of Hedkayse, George Fox, was inspired to investigate improved headgear after the death, almost 20 years ago, of a friend in a bike accident in France. The product design engineer subsequently caught the eye of the company’s co-founders after they saw YouTube videos of him hitting himself with baseball bats to demonstrate the body armour he was making. As Fox puts it: “They said: ‘This guy’s clearly a loonie, would he be up for trying to make a cycle helmet?”
The personable Fox, who has designed thigh pads for many leading cricketers, was up for the challenge. “It took ages and 4,000 iterations before we got there. We found a PU foam specialist in Somerset and did the formulating and moulding there. Then I’d take it all back, cut the foam up, do measurements, look at the densities and do impact tests. Gradually, we found a magical version that just worked. You realised why no one had done it before because it was really hard.”
The other happy accident was bumping into the former England rugby international Tim Stimpson. “He wanted his kids to enjoy the sport but also has former playing colleagues who are struggling to remember their kids’ names. So he asked if I would make a protective headguard for his kids. Then that turned into a wider conversation: why doesn’t this exist already and how can we engineer it to work better for kids and full grown angry blokes?”
Another important step is due this month, as and when the Bristol Bears prop Max Lahiff wears it for the first time in a Premiership game. The 33-year-old is Bristol’s representative on the board of the Rugby Players Association (RPA) and has been testing the headguard in training for the past few months.
After some initial minor problems with keeping it fastened in scrums and mauls, he is a confirmed fan. “It doesn’t feel much different to any other scrum cap. If it’s a colder day it does feel slightly more rigid compared to other headguards but once it warms up it’s very flexible and comfortable.”
The focus is also on injury prevention rather than making players more gung-ho. “I feel this is a happy medium. You want something that doesn’t make you feel immortal but, at the same time, does its job.”
In Lahiff’s view, there is a further bonus. “Ultimately, a lot of the appeal of rugby lies in its confrontational nature and the collisions. It’s a fine line between preserving the essence of that and not neutering it too much.”
Above all, though, the longer-term brain health benefits would be immense. “When you’re a young man you’re full of piss and vinegar. These things don’t sit around in your consciousness. But I’ve had a few concussions and with high-profile players coming out with worrying signs of early onset dementia, it does start to loom more. It could be a massive, massive boon and some sort of shield to stem the tide.”
Not all his teammates have been rushing to embrace this cutting edge science. Lahiff was going to wear the prototype headguard against Saracens last week had “someone not pinched it” in the buildup and has copped some lighthearted dressing-room stick from Ellis Genge – ‘You’re not wearing that, are you?” – and others.
“They think I look like Magneto or Juggernaut from the X-Men,” Lahiff said. “It is somewhat chunkier and more interesting-looking than the contemporary scrum-cap and lends a different aesthetic. You know what rugby players are like. Anything that’s a bit unusual gets scrutinised.”
There will certainly be significant interest when World Rugby’s verdict is confirmed, with globally authorised Hedkayse headguards set to be available immediately at a cost of between £100 and £120 if bought individually.
A potentially safer sport, with scientists, medics, administrators and players all nodding approvingly? Rugby is close to receiving its ultimate pre-Christmas bonus.