Essential Rugby Protective Gear

Portrait of rugby player wearing white helmet against blue sky
Wavebreakmedia / Getty Images

There’s no getting around the violent nature of rugby; if you don’t like getting hit or risking serious injury, find another sport. Granted, the injuries rugby players sustain are not as serious—for the most part—as those suffered by people who, say, box, or play American football, but they are serious enough to require protective gear.

Some pieces of protective equipment that rugby players now routinely wear were never, strictly speaking, illegal: they were just frowned upon, and the relatively rigid social code that binds rugby player behavior kept rugby players from adopting the same sort of protective gear worn by their American-football-playing counterparts.

With the advent of professionalism in the mid-1990s, however, and the grinding nature of the year-round schedule that resulted, the code loosened. Players were now allowed to wear protective gear, and international-caliber players like Josh Kronfeld led the way.

The result of this movement is that today, the rugby player of any age or gender can choose from a wide array of equipment, some of which is more important than others. This guide will provide you with an idea of what protective equipment is available, what it protects, and, how useful it really is.

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Most Essential: Mouthguard

Rugby players with mouth guards huddling
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If you play rugby at any level, it is entirely possible that you will get punched, kicked, or elbowed in the mouth, or that some sort of contact will snap your head back suddenly, causing you to bite down quickly. If you are not wearing a mouthguard, there is a very real and serious risk that you will lose a tooth (or possibly several), that you will bite your tongue, or that the shock will cause damage to your temporomandibular joints (or TMJs) in your jaw.

These problems are all easily and cheaply avoided by wearing a mouthguard. Granted, it does take a few minutes to get used to wearing one, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. The price range for a mouthguard is from $3US to $35US. And in addition to the health benefits discussed above, getting penalized for biting an opponent can cost you a ban of up to two months, as England’s Dylan Hartley found out.

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Next Most Essential: Headgear

Female rugby player smiling and putting on headgear
Jessie Casson / Getty Images

While serious head injuries involving concussion and/or memory loss are not as depressingly common in rugby as they are in American football, the possibility of head injury does still exist: if you practice correct tackling form on an opponent, for example, your head will end up right by your opponent’s knees. Again, rugby is a collision sport, and the probability of getting bonked on the head from time to time in the normal course of play is high.

Most rugby players are willing to live with that risk… until their first serious concussion. Take it from someone who knows: there’s nothing like a good spell of amnesia to make you re-consider your position on headgear.

An additional benefit of headgear for locks and—to a lesser extent—number 8s is the prevention of cauliflower ear that can be an occupational hazard. Rugby shorts have to be made of tough material, and players at these positions can spend a lot of time at practice and in matches in scrums with their heads squeezed up against said shorts, repeatedly having their ears abraded unless they take precautions. In the days before helmets, players at these positions would typically wrap medical or electrical tape around their heads so that their ears would be covered.

The modern headgear has several advantages over this bit of battlefield medicine, not least of which are ear-holds that let sweat out and sound in. The part about “sweat” should not be discounted; even though the headgear is made out of relatively light, breathable material… well, you’re still wearing something on your head that doesn’t necessarily need to be there. The temptation in hot weather then becomes to leave the headgear off and take the risk, especially if one happens to be playing sevens, where the risk of head injury is substantially lower.

Unlike mouthguards, though, there is not as much price flexibility with headgear; a decent one will cost from $50US to $90US, and anything cheaper than that might not be worth wearing, except as a strange-looking party hat.

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Less Essential: Protection Vests

Protective sports shirt

Photo from Amazon 

Rugby players take a lot of abuse in their shoulders, backs, and—to a lesser extent—their chests. The acceptable remedy for this type of pounding is to wear a protection vest under one’s jersey. A protection vest is essentially a compression shirt with light shoulder pads—and, in the more heavily armored models, chest and spinal cord protection as well—sewn into the fabric.

Deciding to wear a protection vest is not the automatic decision that it might seem. The primary positive is that it absorbs a lot of the abuse a rugby player takes to the upper body, and in addition also wicks away some of the perspiration and protects the skin from abrasions.

The primary negative is, well, it’s an extra layer, and even the lightest vests weigh more than just putting on a jersey and taking one’s lumps. So if you happen to be a player who relies on your speed, putting on extra equipment might cost you more than the benefits are worth.

In addition, other players might choose to wear the protection vests only during practice when there will a lot of repetitive contact (an effective rugby practice can sometimes leave players more banged up than a match), or only during matches. Furthermore, they might forego this type of protection when they’re younger and start wearing it after the years and the injuries have taken their toll. Especially with vests being somewhat expensive (depending on the amount of armor), the temptation for younger, poorer players may be to just skip the vest and take their lumps.

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Least Essential: Gloves

Rugby gloves
Gilbert International rugby gloves.

Photo from Amazon


Gloves are the Segways of rugby: yes, they have clear advantages in certain situations, but no one looks anything less than ridiculous using them, and adapting to life without them is relatively easy.

It’s certainly not illegal to wear gloves with grips on them (more like American football players wear), and one’s teammates would certainly prefer you wear them and catch the passes thrown to you than not wear them and drop the ball, but the use of gloves during matches is still relatively rare.

If you do see players wearing gloves, it’s generally because the match is being played in the rain, and these players happen to be fly-halves, fullbacks, or wings, i.e. players whose effectiveness depends heavily on their ability to catch passes and kicks. Of course, there’s another solution in this situation: learn to catch the ball when it’s wet.

Gloves are more acceptable during practices in cold weather, although a pair of humble work gloves will keep one’s hands warm and dry, for the most part, even if they don’t have cool little grippers on them.

Fortunately, this piece of protective gear is not terribly expensive, so learning that you might not actually need them after you’ve bought them won’t be a terribly expensive lesson.