More than 1,000 medics, researchers, sports scientists, law-makers, players and coaches have participated in World Rugby’s 2020 Medical Commission Conference last week, a programme of webinars and workshops aimed at furthering player welfare best-practice in the sport across all 127 member unions.

In a COVID-19 disrupted year, the programme was entirely virtual and joined with the Rugby Science Network to bring together experts across a range of fields to discuss progress across a programme of key webinars aimed at supporting the sport in rebounding from the pandemic, including:

  • The impact of the virus on cardiac, respiratory and mental health of athletes to further best-practice return-to-play guidance
  • The ethical challenges of managing research in a team sport environment, while supporting the need to obtain data that further informs injury-prevention and wellbeing strategies in rugby
  • A detailed update on World Rugby activities including COVID-19 risk mitigation, return-to-play measures, law trials and the boom of online medical and coaching training and education
  • A joint approach with the Rugby Science Network Live, including an overview on World Rugby’s approach to reviewing the breakdown from an injury-prevention perspective


With an understandable heavy emphasis on COVID-19 mitigation and return-to-play, a packed week began with a day of Rugby Science Network LIVE activities focusing on a return-to-rugby in the COVID-19 landscape, before the dedicated Medical Commission Conference webinars explored headline topics in greater detail, involving area experts.

An in-depth COVID-19 session considered the impact of infection on long-term athlete health and wellbeing with leading respiratory, cardiology and psychology experts Dr James Hull (Royal Brompton Hospital & IOC), Professor Matthew Martinez (NFL) and Dr. Martin Mrazik (NHL) providing insights from across sport and society to inform best-practice return-to-play guidance for players who have contracted the infection.

Community participation is the beating heart of the sport and World Rugby Chief Medical Officer Dr. Éanna Falvey updated on guidance available to unions, while World Rugby General Manager Training and Education, Jock Peggie outlined the huge role of e-learning during the pandemic with more than 1.5 million largely online completions of medical and coaching programmes to date this year. This included a focus on steps needed to get children back and active where restrictions are in place, including the role of Activate as a programme to maintain fitness as well as reduce injury-risk when the sport re-starts.

With elite and international rugby up and running, there was an update on the law-review process and the injury-prevention law trials that had operated prior to the first global lockdown. Breakdown Review Group members Wayne Barnes and Richie Gray gave an update on the review process, application guideline implementation and outcomes that have shaped the approach to injury-prevention at the breakdown.

While the usual annual injury surveillance has been disrupted by the pandemic, the interruption to on-field activities has provided an opportunity for World Rugby and its unions to calibrate and align on key injury-prevention measures in a series of virtual workshops and webinars run during lockdown.

World Rugby Chief Medical Officer Dr Éanna Falvey said: “The Medical Commission Conference has been a great success and we were able to bring together a stellar line-up of area expert speakers from around the world. Certainly, the online format broadened our ability to connect with a wider audience and it was superb to have 1,000 participants across the week. I would like to thank everyone for their contributions.

“This has been a uniquely challenging year for the sport and I am proud of how the respective medical experts have united to ensure that rugby has in place the best protocols and guidance to return from the pandemic at both community and elite levels and that our players are appropriately managed and looked after during such a difficult period for them. We have also been working hard on our injury-prevention strategies, particularly concussion, the breakdown and the impact of replacements and will continue to drive these forward into 2021.”

For the participants, the online programme provided an opportunity to engage with a wide range of experts.

Canada & Rugby Americas North Doctor, Dr Araba Chintoh said: I really appreciated the breadth of topics presented and the perspectives provided from within rugby as well as from experts in sports outside of rugby union. The practical examples of return-to-play in the time of COVID-19 from both established and developing unions was particularly instructive and will help Rugby Americas North as they begin to implement policies and practices for their own regional matches.

“Most impressive were the overarching themes of collaboration, transparency and evidence-based decision making – all factors that I value as a physician and a scientist but most importantly as ex-player who now holds governance roles and advocates to prioritise player welfare.”

International Rugby Players board member, Dr. Sharron Flahive added: "It was a pleasure to be involved in the World Rugby Medical Commission Conference. This Webinar brought together experts from around the world in the spirit of collaboration. There were particularly valuable sessions on the impact of Covid-19 on athlete respiratory and cardiological health and a thought-provoking session on the psychological impact for all, emphasising the social nature of humans and how this year has limited our normal social contacts. 

“The Rugby Science Network presented an excellent day with a focus on return to play in the COVID-19 landscape. I particularly enjoyed the session to discuss impact of the breakdown laws, as experts were brought together from all aspects of the game including Victor Vito and Wayne Barnes.

“The status and future direction for Research in the Women’s game session shone a spotlight on so many opportunities as well as an enthusiasm to think differently in this space.”

World Rugby Chief Medical Officer Dr Eanna Falvey wraps up the Medical Commission Conference, which happened virtually in 2020.

South Africa Rugby’s Dr. Wayne Viljoen said: “World Rugby provided an excellent selection of topics at this year’s online Rugby Science Network and Medical Commission Conference, ranging from Covid-19, Women’s Rugby, Mental Health, Ethical challenges in rugby research, to some key elements of the mammoth amount of work that World Rugby has been doing behind the scenes over the last year to prioritize player safety and well-being.

“What I thoroughly enjoyed from an injury prevention perspective, was the discussion on the impact and strategy around the new implementation of the breakdown laws. The strength of this process was highlighted in all parties working together, including players, coaches, referees, and scientists, in getting this right and improving the player safety aspects in the ruck. Key take home messages from an injury prevention angle were, ‘You perform the skills better, you will make the game safer’ and ‘The tackler is key, clear everyone out of the way, then you have a fair contest’.”