So how can you identify the right protective equipment for you, helping you to enjoy the sport rather than constantly worrying about injuries?
Starting at the feet and working upwards, your first point of call will be your rugby boots. Boots may not necessarily seem like 'protection', but in terms of your safety choosing the right pair is essential as a slip at the wrong time, for example in a scrum, can be very dangerous.
Upper body protection products are often generically known as 'shoulder pads', yet some products also offer impact protection for the arms and torso too. On the hottest of days, even the most breathable shoulder pads can make you feel very warm simply due to the fact that it adds an extra (in places padded) layer. However, for the majority of the year this is not an issue, and once you get used to wearing shoulder pads you can almost forget you're wearing them, whilst still benefitting from the extra padding.
The main thing to emphasise about shoulder pads is that they are not a substitute for a good tackling technique or body position when going into contact. Instead, your focus should still be on a good position, lead by a good head position. Padding helps provide confidence when tackling but of itself cannot improve your technique, and this should be your priority when learning the game.
One of the hallmarks of the traditional tight forward was 'cauliflower ears'. In scrums, racks and mauls, ears are regularly subjected to impacts, rubbing and abrasion, something they are not really designed to cope with. Overtime, this can lead the outer of the ear to become permanently swollen and deformed and looking generally unsightly. The padding afforded by scrum caps provides some protection against this problem, whilst offering limited impact protection around the head, on occasions when your comes into contact with other players or the ground. The important thing to remember once again is that a scrum cap is not a crash helmet - if you hurtle into somebody head first, it is still going to hurt! Therefore a scrum cap is a good option to reduce injury, particularly for forwards, but you still need to consider the limitations and not become over-confident to the expense of your technique.
Gum shields or mouth guards come in two main varieties. The first is the 'off the shelf' option, which are made from thermo-moulded plastics - you heat the mouth guard, put it on and leave it for long enough to allow the shape to set, and then the shape of the product will have moulded to the shape of your teeth and gums. It will retain its shape until heated again, meaning that it can be remoulded to suit a developing mouth. However, this is not a 'one size fits all' option - the back of the gum shield should be at the back of the back teeth to offer both protection and a comfortable fit.
The second is to get a specialist fitting. These gum shields offer greater strength and also a better fit, but are the more expensive option. Therefore whether it is worth paying the extra money largely depends on the amount of use you will have - if you are playing regularly, it can be money well spent. Whichever option you choose, remember to clean it after use to extend the lifespan of the product.
There are a few factors to consider when selecting the right equipment. The first is that there are various regulations relating to the design of the equipment that must be adhered to and those failing to meet these regulations will not be cleared for competitive use. Scrum caps and shoulder pads suitable for use in Rugby Union will be labelled as 'IRB Approved' on the product itself - other products are less easy to check but still subject to regulations. You can discover more about the regulations and a list of approved products on the IRB website.
In terms of choosing the right fit, you should be looking for snug but not uncomfortable. If buying for a child, try to avoid buying a larger size that they will 'grow into' as a loose-fitting product will move around and therefore will not provide the same level of impact protection.
In many ways, rugby protective equipment should be viewed like the safety features on a modern car - they are very good to have if something does go slightly wrong, but you shouldn't be looking to utilise them all the time. Your first port of call in terms of staying safe and steering clear of injury should be maintaining a good technique when going into contact in both attack and defence, and then enjoy the benefits of the impact protection if something does go slightly wrong.