Rugby is one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. The 80-minute match features non-stop running and tackling by players in every position. It is grueling on both sides of the ball and collisions are a part of the modern game offensively and defensively. Shoulder pads are an attempt to help lessen the physical toll of playing and training week in and week out.
Shoulder pads have not always been allowed under World Rugby regulations or accepted by the players. But all that is starting to change and they are an increasingly common site and are now a well-established piece of equipment.
Rugby shoulder pads are notably different from American football pads in that they have to be soft and there are strict limitations on the areas of coverage allowed. While there is more variety in shoulder pad construction and types than scrum caps, there are still very tight limits on how they can be built.
Per World Rugby (formerly the IRB) Regulation 12, Schedule 1:
(e) Shoulder Pads*
A player may wear shoulder pads, made of soft and thin materials, which may be incorporated in an undergarment or jersey provided that the pads cover the shoulder and collar bone only. No part of the pads may be thicker than 1cm when uncompressed. No part of the pads may have a density of more than 45 kilograms per cubic metre.
But while only the shoulders can be covered with a 1cm pad as described above, some manufacturers opt to include lighter pads over key points on the body. These pads can only be 0.5cm uncompressed, however, so they are less protective. This is referenced further into Reg 12:
A player must not wear any item of which any part is thicker than 0.5cm when uncompressed os is denser than 45 kg per cubic metre […] Where this overall thickness consists of padded material covered by fabric, 0.5 cm is the maximum measured thickness [which the] fabric can contribute up to a maximum measured thickness of 1mm on each side of the padding.
The lone exception to both is chest pads for women are allowed to be 1 cm thick:
Special additional items for women
Besides the previous items, women may wear chest pads made of soft and thin materials which may be incorporated as part of a garment provided that the pads cover the shoulder and/or collar bone and/or chest only with no part of the pads thicker than 1cm when uncompressed and no part of the pads having a density of more than 45 kilograms per cubic metre.
Ultimately a regulation shoulder pad will have covering of the top of the shoulders with a minimally acceptable padding. Different brands and price points will offer different pads shapes, cuts and placements to enhance fit and feel and in the case of additional coverage zones a bit more area of protective coverage.
The most obvious benefit of rugby shoulder pads is to absorb and disperse some of the force applied to the shoulder when tackling. This will not take away all, or even most, of the force from a hit. The 1 cm thick padding only allows enough protection to mitigate the impact of the hit, but by blunting the force of the hit it does help to reduce the potential for minor soft tissue damage around the shoulder. (Bring in citations:
For this reason it is important to remember that rugby shoulder pads are more about the added protection over the course of many properly executed tackles during a match or weekend of rugby and not how they will help with a few big tackles.
An old-school player summed it up best saying, “You only have so many tackles in your shoulders and any amount of force you can take out of a tackle will mean you have more tackles left in your shoulders.” While there is limited research on pads, what exists lends credence to the effectiveness of helping prevent minor soft tissue damage.
Shoulder pads can have additional uses beyond just tackling. Front row players can see similar benefits in helping reduce the shock and pressure of the scrum engagement and with the use of additional body padding (again not as thick as on the shoulders) they can also help when receiving a tackle. It is now common for shoulder pads to include padding on the biceps, sternum, and ribs all key areas to impact when being tackled.
Choosing a Pair
Believe it or not, but World Rugby actually regulates the way that manufacturers can fit their garments. So to get the best size you will need to get your chest girth. To do that grab a tape measurer and:
- Wrap the tape measure under your armpits, around the fullest part of your chest.
- The tape measure should be snug. Not so tight that it constricts breathing, but not so loose that the tape measure slides down.
- on’t puff out or flex your chest. Just stand normally.
Pad Construction and Coverage
While the padding itself is regulated, the designs are less so. Much of the difference in shoulder pads is going to be comfort, fit and additional non-shoulder coverage.
Lower end pads tend to use single piece pads on the shoulder and offer minimal to no additional coverage on the arms, chest, sternum, etc. The single piece padding often conforms to the body less well than multiple pads or many smaller pads.
Higher end pads tend to be the inverse of that. More pad pieces in hexagonal and grid designs that mold to the shoulder better, great coverage on the rest of the body and generally better and more comfortable materials.
Fortunately you are not sacrificing functional product integrity with lower price points although you might be from a fit, aesthetics and additional coverage standpoint.
Rugby shoulder pads are gaining in popularity but as with any new piece of equipment they come with a cautionary warning. They can give a player a false sense of security and incorrect belief that reckless tackles and shoulder charges can’t result in an injury. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the end of the tackle, the best way to avoid injury is by following proper tackling technique, even while wearing rugby shoulder pads.
World Rugby Shop has a great selection of rugby shoulder pads. Get protected today!