Danny Care wearing the 'mind-blowing' Protecht gumshield

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

For the past four months, more and more players have been donning white bibs at Harlequins’ training base at the Surrey Sports Park in Guildford. To the outsider the change of colour may seem fairly innocuous but its true meaning has not just helped change the club’s fortunes this season; it could signify a revolution in professional rugby.

The white bib is a sign that the player wearing it must not take any contact, a decision which is made by coaches monitoring impact data gathered by ‘smart’ gumshields. It has led to a reduction in contact by up to 900 per cent, a day’s less on-pitch training each week and an unprecedented drop in injuries.

If anybody was wondering how Quins managed to turn around their season, this is it. You would think that the club would be cagey about the secret to their success in the week of their Premiership semi-final against Bristol. But Danny Care, the scrum-half who is in the form of his life aged 34, is eager to explain. “I have seen ridiculous amounts of contact over my career,” Care says. “I feel a lot of it is unnecessary.”

This groundbreaking ‘less-is-more’ approach comes from players wearing Protecht gumshields, which are fitted with a microchip that monitors the collisions a player takes to both the head and the body. It is a British technology success story as they are designed by Swansea-based Sports & Well-being Analytics to create a database clubs can use to decide when players should rest. 

Gloucester and Leicester are also using Protecht as are Welsh region Ospreys. But it is at Harlequins where the impact of the technology has been most stark.

From the beginning of the conversation, Care is adamant that player welfare demands that all clubs should adopt this technology. As a former team-mate at Leeds of Steve Thompson, Alix Popham and Dan Scarborough, who have all gone public with their battles with dementia, for Care, this is personal. 

The ‘smart’ gumshield that could change rugby forever

“I have spanned quite a lot of the professional era because I am so old now and a lot of the people who I have played with have mild forms of dementia from repeat concussions,” he says. “A lot of them are the guys who are going through the lawsuit. I played with a lot of those lads at Leeds, I know them personally and I know how rugby, the sport they loved and I love, can have really bad consequences on health.

“So having seen that happen first-hand to people that I know, when Protecht came and they had this invention that can fit into a gumshield that can monitor how hard people are getting hit, and how many times people are getting hit, I was like: ‘this is mind-blowing!’ Why didn’t we have this back when I started? How many of these lads wouldn’t have mild forms of dementia?

“As a rugby player, when you are training you don’t feel them [collisions], unless it is a big one. So to have that real time feedback you have taken too many hits is a massive game changer and I hope the whole league and other leagues of rugby all get involved in it.”

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The long-term benefits are clear. But for Harlequins, there has been an immediate and profound impact. “My body at 34 feels a lot better than it did at 29, 30. I am not playing less rugby, I am maybe playing a bit more,” Care says. 

“As you get a bit older you need to look after yourself more. I warm up a lot more than I did when I was younger. For me, taking out a lot of contact during the week has made me available for pretty much every game this year.”

As Mike Lancaster, Harlequins’ head of medical services, explains, the introduction of reduced contact training is one of two major shifts at the club after the departure of former head of rugby Paul Gustard in January. 

“What we are doing now, in terms of how we changed the amount of contact, is the second biggest change this season. We have more players available and fit. It has been a major factor for how we have performed.”

Harlequins secret BOB

Care continues: “Mike, the medical team and the strength and conditioners and coaches have been great at listening to the advice, monitoring us, reducing the load and then we are getting more of our best players playing at the weekend. It isn’t rocket science. It is sensible, it is people’s lives, it is not just their rugby careers. The players are human beings who need their brains when they finish.”

Before speaking to Care, Lancaster suggests the 84-cap England international should be asked where thinks the technology could be used in the future. Again Care returns close to home, this time citing his experiences as the father of a rugby-playing child. His son Blake is six-and-a-half and his proud dad believes he “has something about him” and “could make a decent rugby player” – but, like many parents, he has concerns about the safety of the sport.

“The safety of rugby does scare me with him. If somebody said to me ‘would you rather your son play rugby or football?’ I would say football because I feel football is safer. But with Protecht coming into the game I genuinely think it is a game-changer.

“If even people like me are worried about their child playing, then maybe there is an issue. Hopefully, this is the start of something huge. I would love to be able to have this available for kids and to be able to speak to other parents.”

Returning to Harlequins and their meeting with league toppers Bristol on Saturday, Care believes the new approach to player safety, welfare and training load is part of a wider shift at the club he has called home for the past 15 years. “I think the environment over the last few years wasn’t true to what Quins really are,” he says. 

“I think it was forcing us to be something that we are not. The last four or five months was about going back to what our DNA is and for me the key word about my time at Quins is fun. We enjoy ourselves. And that has been our buzzword, come into work, enjoy it, take the mickey out of each other, we train really hard and we have a lot of fun. 

“We go out there and back ourselves. I have loved every minute of it and I would love to go for a title. That would be incredible from where we were five, six months ago.”