How safe is taking up rugby for a 30 year old?
September 5, 2013 4:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering joining my college's rugby team, but I really don't want to get any serious or permanent injuries. Also, I'm in my early 30's, and basically everyone else is under 24 (if this might matter). I've been to practice, and it does not seem too bad, but in my mind, rugby = scary dangerous. Is it possible to play rugby and not get too hurt?

I would be happy to accept that rugby isn't right for me, but it's been a lot of fun so far, and I would like to keep doing it if this isn't a dumb idea. How likely is it to be able to play rugby for the year without doing any serious damage to myself? Are there any tips about ways to stay injury-free while playing?

I don't mind any bumps/bruises/soreness etc., I just want to avoid a torn ACL or messed up ankle or anything else that might be permanent or put me out of commission for the year. I've played plenty of other sports growing up, although nothing that compares to college rugby.

This is America/the National Small College Rugby Organization. I'm not sure how many matches I'll be going to, so I'm mostly wondering about practices (although I think our scrimmages at practice are supposed to be similar to how we play in games).

Any thoughts or advice would be great. I've seen this question and this question.
posted by davidstandaford to Health & Fitness (14 answers total)
I just want to avoid a torn ACL or messed up ankle or anything else that might be permanent or put me out of commission for the year.

Few points:

1. Rugby is dangerous. Dangerous even to your head and brain. The headgear (even when used) is not as effective as any old junk protector. Think of football without helmets.

2. Your age doesn't matter here. You seem to be athletic, and maybe even an amateur athlete. Sure you're getting older, but that doesn't mean that AGE is the thing u should be worried about.

3. Wear ankle gear. The kind that DEFINITELY restricts movement. I have weak ankles that were always being broken (not literally, but figuratively in bball). I wear really restrictive stuff now. It doesn't really decrease my performance, but no more strains. Annoying, but effective.

4. It's your head. I wish I could say "watch your head" as if it would help, but it won't. Even veteran (amateurs) who have played all their lives go into comas, and become paralyzed because of a 'bad play'. I'm in NZ here, and I seriously think you should give hang gliding a try first. Maybe even MMA. This game is dangerous.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:57 PM on September 5, 2013

The answer to your title question is "it's not very safe to play rugby as a 30 year-old."

I say that as a 30 year-old whitewater kayaker and snowboarder.
posted by craven_morhead at 5:02 PM on September 5, 2013

I wouldn't be as concerned about ankles and ACLs - these will all heal eventually - as I would about permanent brain damage. It doesn't even take repeated knocks, just one decent one to the right part of your head. I live in a rugby playing, football playing part of Australia. My husband used to play rugby and now doesn't because of the risks and I won't let my son (only a toddler but shaping up to have a rugby build already) play either sport growing up because of what the studies are now saying. Yes, I am a killjoy mummy. He can play golf or tennis instead, and make his momma rich that way!
posted by Jubey at 5:14 PM on September 5, 2013

Rugby looks dangerous on TV. If you don't mind "cosmetic" injuries, it's safer than most people think, but it is of course a contact sport. There are statistics on injury rates per minute played by sport. The general conclusion seems to be that rugby is more dangerous than soccer, but safer than American football. The reasons are easy to understand.

As in American football, there's a small but real chance of paralysis or very serious back/neck injuries. Breakdown of a scrum can put dangerous strain on your neck, for example. But rugby is absolutely not "football without helmets". The relatively oblique collisions in rugby caused by backward passing, the reduced incentive to drive a player backwards during a tackle, the fact that you can't block or tackle someone without the ball (so you know it's coming), and that players don't wear armour and helmets that give a false sense of security and that allow and encourage big, high-up hits, all make rugby safer than American football. All the evidence I could find by Googling is that the head, spine and neck injury rate in rugby is lower than in American football for these reasons.

You emphasise leg injuries, which is sensible, because they're statistically more likely, even if they grab fewer headlines. If it's just your ankles and knees you're worried about, then rugby is actually probably safer than most contact team sports, including soccer. The amount of twisting and turning at speed, which is where those injuries happen, is relatively low. It's simply a slow game, and at the amateur level it's very slow. To an extent though, it depends what position you're playing. I would guess that you're more likely to suffer an ankle or knee injury as a back than a forward, simply because you're expected to run more and run faster. If the standard is competitive, you won't get much say in where you play though. This will be determined by your weight, speed, and hands.

If you play for more than a year or two then you will almost certainly break your nose, whatever position you play. Better to make peace with this now. Dislocated shoulders are not rare (but nor are they usually career threatening). Tape your ears down if you play in the scrum. Consider wearing a scrum cap whatever position you play, but don't let it give you a false sense of security, and learn how to tackle properly. You don't wear a cup to play rugby outside the U.S. Not sure about in the U.S., if that's where you are. Hard cups are useless and dangerous to others to the extent that they are often against the rules.

Have fun!
posted by caek at 5:22 PM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't know. I can't talk about safety with regard to your ACL, and there's definitely inherent risk in any contact support, especially one with tackling. But speaking as someone who played for a few years, I don't think rugby's quite as dangerous as some are making it out to be. The tackling is generally of the wrap style, below the waist, so we're not talking about diving (American) football type stuff here. It also tends to be a more gentlemanly game. Because everyone is vulnerable--there isn't much in the way of padding--everyone is a little bit more cautious.

The main danger is in rucking and if you're the guy on the deck you're going to be protecting your head with your arms.

I don't want to say it is a completely safe sport and there's no chance you'll be hurt, but it's a great game and I recommend you give it a shot. Maybe find a more casual game than the college team first if you can.

I will also add that my dad played rugby in his 30s and he was fine, for whatever that's worth.
posted by synecdoche at 5:29 PM on September 5, 2013

I played rugby throughout high school (in Canada) and college (in the US), but dropped the sport after graduation, partially because I couldn't commit to making it out to practice regularly, but also because I played for 8 years without serious injury and thought that I should leave while I was beating the law of averages.

So, my anecdata to you is that I played for 8 years at a fairly aggressive, competitive level and still have all of my teeth, never broke a bone and never dislocated anything*. So it is possible to play without injury, but you're kidding yourself if you think that this sport is safe. Off the top of my head, in the time that I've played, I've seen two spinal fractures, four dislocated shoulders, one torn harmstring, a number of black eyes, broken noses, broken collarbones and sprained fingers. Injuries happen. There's a higher chance of injury if you're playing a forward (particularly: prop, hooker or second row) simply because there is just more overall physical contact, but backs get their fair share of damage simply from tackling/being tackled at speed.

Things I would advise as far as sussing out your chances:

1. What is the level of experience \ expertise within your club?

In general, the more inexperienced, the greater the chance of injury during practice or scrimmage. For a while, in university, I took on the role of B-side captain, and my main responsibility during practices was taking a bunch of American recruits who used to play football and break them of all of their bad habits (ie. you no longer have a helmet, thus using your head as a battering ram DOES NOT APPLY). These folks were usually the most prone to either receiving or delivering an injury, especially while they were transitioning in their habits and doing things like holding on to the ball long after they were down because their head was thinking "must not fumble" instead of "must release ball to teammate"

2. During competitive play and scrimmages, never substitute into a position that you have not practiced in.

I've seen a number of injuries where, say, a second-row stepped in to substitute for prop and wound up collapsing a scrum because he hadn't trained very much in the position and didn't know how to place his feet. This is more important as a forward, but can also be useful as a back.

3. Get an honest opinion from your players about how dirty your peers and opponents are.

There's a lot of shenanigans that can occur within a ruck or maul, and most of the hand injuries that I've seen usually stem from some kind of cheap shot that's been delivered while the tangle of bodies is too dense for refs to catch something.

but, on preview, what caek say is generally correct: rugby is not football without helmets. the absence of blocking and protective equipment, as well as the greater emphasis on ball transfer makes tackling and contact a very different creature than American football. There are fewer high speed collisions (though it does happen sometimes, especially when it comes to backs fielding kicks) and thus a lower risk of permanent injury, but it doesn't zero out the risk. Give it a shot at practice and a few scrimmages and see how you feel from there.

It is a fun game though. I played soccer and American football for a few years before picking up rugby, and for open-field contact sports, rugby will always be my choice.

* my nose does have a small curve in it from getting an elbow in a lineout, but I never bled from that injury so I wouldn't call that broken ;)

also, my fingers and knuckles are a mess of scars, as are my knees, but that's more of a character building / fun story thing than it is permanent injury

posted by bl1nk at 5:36 PM on September 5, 2013

You can't play any full-contact sport without risking serious injury. Even theoretically non-full-contact sports like basketball cause injuries (who was the college player last season who broke his leg so horribly just landing on it?).

You might be able to play for a year without anything more serious than scrapes and bruises. Or you might be carried off the pitch in your second match. And there's not a lot of control you have over it.
posted by rtha at 5:40 PM on September 5, 2013

I know a few guys who play rugby, and I play both soccer and touch (American) football. My advice would be to go for it - but try and find a community league outside of college. I'm basing this on my experience of recently-ex college players, who are in general just a level of physical competitiveness/aggressiveness above all the older players in the leagues I've seen.
posted by jacalata at 5:49 PM on September 5, 2013

On the fence on this one. After a long hiatus I returned to rugby at 41. Next oldest guy in the scrum was 15 years younger. I'm fit, active, flexible, all the good things. I gave up Rugby after a season where I had 9 broken ribs, 3 at any one time. Maybe bad luck, maybe slightly slow reflexes from age.

I was an eight or openside flanker so I didn't get many chances to hit my head. Couple of concussions, couple of cuts that were close to needing stitches but it was the playing with 3 broken ribs and then going to work the next day that got me.

My vote - go for it. Go hard.

I now participate in only safe sports. I race motorcycles.

Also - as an "older" person you are, in my experience, better able to manage endurance and handle pain than the less experienced folks. Valuable stuff late in a match.

and echoing bl1ink avoid the former American football players at all costs. They are dangerous.

Best teammates (other than native rugby players) are the former soccer guys. They are good on their feet and generally don't like to get tackled.

The scrum? madness.
posted by BrooksCooper at 8:24 PM on September 5, 2013

Rugby is one of the few sports that I watch and genuinely feel bad to the players involved, because there's no way doing that to your body can be healthy.

Whether or not you're particularly susceptible to injuries given your age, I'd say maybe, based on what I know about how progressively poorly the body does at healing itself after a certain age, but I'm no doctor. Maybe you could ask yours?
posted by Fister Roboto at 10:56 PM on September 5, 2013

I want to focus not as much on Rugby in general, but more on starting a new contact sport as a 30 year old. I think this is a bad idea for a couple of reasons:

30 is pretty old to start any new sport. Your ability to learn new psysical skills and have them become automatic is much worse than it was when you were in your teens and early twenties. This means that you will be actively thinking about a lot of the basics while your 24 year old teamates and competitors with years of experience are in operating in automatic mode. They will be several seconds/steps faster than you. You will be thinking about executing the basic skill set while your competitor is already tackling you.

When you combine the above with the intensity of contact that rugby has, I would expect your risk of serious injury is pretty high. You will need much much more concentration to catch, pick up or recieve the ball. This will take mental energy away from thinking about the next steps like putting your body in proper running or passing position or avoiding a tackler and leave you vulnerable in these critical situations. After you are hit hard a couple of times in these situations, it is very hard not to stiffen and become scared preparing for the next hit which will leave you much much more vulnerable for injury.

Your 30 year old body will recover much more slowly from the standard bumps and bruises that every rugby injury will leave on your body. This means that you will not be able to train between matches as much as your 24 year old competitors.

If you are a natural and pick up sports very quickly, have a lot of previous experience with contact sports (ice hockey, american football, wrestling or whatever else) and are very very fit then I think - no problem - go for it. If not, I would stay away from Rugby. There are plenty of things you can start as an 'old man' that are much less risky.
posted by jazh at 12:18 AM on September 6, 2013

Speaking as someone who has already buzzed well past the over 30 mark - do keep up with at least one sport you like. If you stop now you will have exactly the same question about starting at 40 - but the potential downside and "startup costs" are much larger if you haven't kept in shape.

My quote was always that I needed to find "an over 60 league and a fake ID so I could get in" for me to feel safe. At every age bracket in every sport you will find people in amazing shape - unfortunately some of these people have something to prove and play aggressively enough that people get hurt.

All of that said, I wouldn't pick rugby as my sport to keep as I age. It seems like you would age or injure out of the ability to keep up relatively quickly...
posted by NoDef at 10:01 AM on September 6, 2013

One of my best friends in high school played for our high school team. I used to go to his games on the weekends. I never once watched a game without seeing at least one person have to be helped off the field having suffered at least a mild concussion. I'd think twice before taking the game up.
posted by yoink at 11:29 AM on September 6, 2013

injuries occur to any regular rugby players and of course your impending injuries are a matter of fate. the real question is how rough are injuries to the life of a 30 yo vs a say under 24 person? Well, when you break your leg at 22 in college you drink beer and watch tv and hobble around and whatever. When you are in your 30s ya gotta go to work, keep up with life's commitments and so on. that would be my thinking!
posted by Salvatorparadise at 9:02 PM on September 6, 2013

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