Shoulder Pads In Rugby (Explained)

When you watch a rugby match, you may notice that some players wear shoulder pads and some don’t.

It’s not as obvious as in American Football where the pads are much bigger. But why are shoulder pads much smaller in Rugby Union? And why don’t all players wear them?

Read on for some fascinating answers.

Are Shoulder Pads Allowed In Rugby Union?

Shoulder pads are allowed in Rugby Union as long as they comply with the correct coverage and thickness laid out by World Rugby.

They must:

  • only cover the shoulder and collarbone
  • be made of soft material
  • be no thicker than 1cm when uncompressed

The rules are included in the general regulations from World Rugby on clothing and gear.

The restrictions that I summarized above are the easiest to tell with a visual inspection either in the shop or if you’re a referee.

But there are also more complex restrictions aimed at manufacturers. For example, the density can’t be more than 45 kilograms per cubic meter.


Another stated restriction is that the pads can’t extend from the shoulder past 2 cm down the upper arm. This is easier to see with a picture:

How to tell if shoulder pads are illegal?

Are you in a shop trying to figure out which shoulder pads will be okay?

Or are you a referee looking uneasily at a kid with spindly legs and an upper frame like the hulk?

Here are some tips to tell if the padding is illegal:

  • Squeeze the padding at its thickest point. Does it not squash easily? Then it’s too dense.
  • One centimeter is about half the width of your finger. Your thumbnail is about 1.5 cm wide. So, if it’s getting close to a thumbnail in thickness, it’s too thick.

When players are coming back from a shoulder injury, they sometimes like to tape extra padding underneath the shoulder pads.

This is probably okay for training. But the total thickness exceeds a centimeter, then a referee is entitled to demand that one piece of the combined kit be removed.

How Many Players Wear Shoulder Pads?

A quick glance across a rugby pitch should make it clear that some players were shoulder pads and some don’t. But what’s the percentage?

A recent survey (2020) of current players was conducted by researchers at Sheffield University in England.

66% of their respondents had worn shoulder pads at some point in their playing career. 34% had never worn shoulder pads.

Taking a closer look at that 64%, the numbers broke down further:

  • 10% wear them for both training and matches
  • 18% only wear them for matches
  • 25% had stopped wearing them

Backs versus forwards

The breakdown between backs and forwards is also interesting. What percentage wore shoulder pads at some point?

  • 61% of forwards
  • 74% of backs

Why Do Some Players Wear Shoulder Pads?

The study in 2020 found a range of reasons for players choosing to wear shoulder pads.

I’m rounding these numbers from the survey answers:

  • 44% for protection from minor shoulder injuries and bruising
  • 19% for protection from a previous or recurring injury
  • 16% for confidence
  •   9% to reduce soreness from tackles and scrums
  •   7% were told to do so by their coach or their mum
  •   2% to make a smaller player “feel” bigger

Over two-thirds wear them for injury protection. So, the next question is obvious.

Do Shoulder Pads Protect Rugby Players From Injury?

Medical studies show that shoulder injuries account for about 20% of all rugby injuries. They are second only to knee injuries.

However, there hasn’t been a scientific study that shows that shoulder pads protect players from injury.

Some researchers have measured the physics of applying a sudden strong force to these pads. In other words, they’ve dropped a large weight on the products.

The findings show that pads serve to disperse the force from direct impact.

But that doesn’t let us extrapolate to predicting whether a collarbone will be broken.

Without a scientific study, we have to fall back on players’ experiences. After all, they wouldn’t wear them if they thought they were making things worse!

The Sheffield University study looked at how players perceived the effectiveness of their shoulder pads.

  • 60% believe they prevent bruising
  • 59% believe they prevent cuts and scrapes
  • 22% believe they prevent bone injury
  • 11% believe they prevent dislocations

Notice that only one-third believe that shoulder pads are effective protection against breaks and dislocations.

Even so, the researchers expressed concern that this was a little high – given the lack of scientific evidence.

Why Do Players Not Wear Shoulder Pads?

The survey by Sheffield researchers asked players why they didn’t wear shoulder pads.

The breakdown is interesting. Some respondents had clearly tried them but didn’t like the experience. Some mentioned overheating, and I’ve also had friends complain of this.

Here are the numbers (I’ve left out the tiny percentages).

  • 39% said that shoulder pads are not needed in rugby
  • 21% found them uncomfortable
  •   6% found that they restricted their movement
  •   6% said that they were too expensive to replace
  •   4% consider them bad for the sport
  •   4% associated shoulder pads with the stigma of being “soft”

Some of the 4% who considered them bad for the sport were concerned that padding would encourage poor tackling technique.

This leads us to the next burning question about shoulder pads in rugby.

Could Shoulder Pads Increase Injury In Rugby?

There is a theory out there that players who wear shoulder pads get a false sense of confidence and are more likely to make reckless tackles.

If this is true, then it would lead to these players being more likely to get injured.

There is no study that shows this idea to be true or false. But are there any statistics around this topic?

Let’s go back to players in the Sheffield survey.

  • 70% who always wore padding had suffered a shoulder injury
  • 60% who never wore padding had suffered a shoulder injury

Personally, I think the study write-up makes a bit more of this comparison than is warranted.

As far as I can tell, the survey didn’t check if some of the 70% had incurred their injury before they ever wore padding and then started wearing padding afterward.

I think it’s fair to say that if medical consultants associated with World Rugby thought that shoulder pads increased injury, then pads would quickly be thrown out of the sport.

Other Protective Gear In Rugby

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