Hi-tech mouthguards help players

Hutt Old Boys Marist player Alexis Time, left, with his electronic mouthguard. Premier team doctor Doug King stands beside him.
Hutt Old Boys Marist player Alexis Time, left, with his electronic mouthguard. Premier team doctor Doug King stands beside him.

Hutt Old Boys' Marists' premier players have been fitted with electronic mouthguards this season as the Wellington rugby club takes the lead on player welfare and concussion.

In a New Zealand first, team doctor Doug King has imported micro-chipped technology from the United States to measure impacts received on the field.

The premier side wore the mouthguards during Monday's Swindale Shield match against Wainuiomata and although there were no recorded concussions, one player recorded an impact of 126 G-Force.

"There are accelerometers and gyros in the mouthguards," King told The Dominion Post. "I do a one-minute concussion test called the King-Devick on every player after the match and then download all the data from the mouthguards and correlate the two to see what's happening."

King, a registered nurse at Hutt Hospital's emergency department, is doing the work as part of his second Phd.

His work began after he witnessed the death of Wainuiomata rugby league player Leonardo Va'a in 1998, called in to help from the sidelines at Trentham Memorial Park.

"He died on the field as a result of quite a few concussions and a bleed on his brain," King said. "He was unfortunately declared dead on arrival at Wellington Hospital. It spurred me to want to know a lot more with regards to concussion."

His work in rugby union started last year when HOBM agreed to all players from its top two sides sitting the King-Devick test and being measured against their baseline score after every match.

"Last year we only witnessed five concussions, but picked up a further 17 concussion related injuries through the King-Devick," he said.

"It promoted me to want to know a bit more. I wanted to see what the impacts are occurring on the football field."

And so he applied and was granted funding to import the $300-a-pop mouthguards from American company X2 Biosystems, which last season fitted the same technology to the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League.

Besides the mouthguard, backs are wearing an X2 patch that sticks behind the ear using adhesive tape and correlates two readings.

"There is about a 20 per cent failure rate, especially when guys wear a styling mousse in their hair. It seems to slip off," King said.

Although the New Zealand Rugby Union are aware of his work and have endorsed it, they have no official involvement, he said.

Club players in New Zealand are subject to a mandatory three week stand-down period after a diagnosed concussion.

Professional players are subject to psychometric testing, but King said that was not applicable at amateur level.

"It's totally separate. The difference is the King-Devick can be used by non-medical people. It is designed to identify if someone has had a concussion.

"It will raise the alert that this person needs to be referred for medical consultation."

The test has also been introduced to HOBM's junior club where parents can use an iPad to assess whether children record an impaired cognitive score.

And HOBM's premier team have taken a tough stance with any player who fails the King-Devick post-match test, not allowed to train or play until King gives them the all clear.

Premier back Alexis Time sat out Monday's season opener, his fourth week on the sidelines, after being concussed during a pre-season match.

And coach Justin Wilson said he wouldn't have it any other way.

"If you get a corked thigh it's repairable, but we are talking about guy's heads," he said.

"Doug has shown the club some documentaries and what head injuries can do for the rest of your life and it's really had an impact.

"I'm a father of five boys and I consider myself a rugby head, but if I can protect my players and they don't have to go through some of those things then that's great.

"Having this technology doesn't give us an advantage over other teams, but it does in looking after our players."

While some players had been reluctant, the vast majority had embraced the concept and were glad the club was monitoring their health.

The Dominion Post