THE perception that professional rugby players run a greater risk of injury now than ever before is false, according to the latest in-depth findings.
The 2010-11 England Rugby Injury and Training audit, published today, shows the injury rate among professional players has effectively remained stable since the first report was commissioned in 2002.
Although the likelihood of sustaining a match injury rose last season by 16% - from 80 injuries per 1,000 hours in 2009-10 to 93 - that remains within the "normal level" of season-by-season variation.
Last year's fluctuation is related to an increase in injuries that kept players out for a week or less and a small increase in injuries that resulted in more than 84 days' absence.
The bare statistics show that each Aviva Premiership club will lose 1.9 players to a three-week injury after every match of the season.
However, Dr Simon Kemp, the head of sports medicine at the RFU, explained that the days absence figures are distorted by the small number of long-term injuries, with half of the injured players back in action after a week.
The study, conducted jointly by the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players' Association, also shows that medical and physiotherapy advances have led to a decrease in repeat injuries.
Dr Kemp told Press Association Sport: "People like playing and watching rugby union because it is a collision sport. We try and make it as safe as you can while keeping it recognisable as rugby.
"Despite the perception that players are bigger, faster and stronger, there isn't any evidence that the injury rate has increased in professional rugby since 2002.
"Although the studies before 2002 were not as comprehensive, there is some evidence that there was an increase in injury risk between 1995 and 2001, but the risk has now stabilised.
"We do see differences in risk from season to season, as you would expect, but they are those that reflect differences that have arisen as a result of normal statistical variation.
"The likelihood of suffering a recurrence of an injury continues to fall.
"You probably don't want your injury recurrence rate to be zero in a professional sport because that would suggest that you are being a little too conservative in your return to play decisions.
"But the fact it is now only seven percent is good evidence to show that the clubs and the England team are rehabilitating players with injuries well."
The RFU's study into the community game, sponsored by their official insurance brokers Marsh, shows that the risk of injury is significantly reduced at the lower levels of play. Approximately half of all injuries occur in tackles. The next most common cause is running and then the ruck.
"The risk of injury in the community game drops with the decreasing level of competition and with reducing age," Dr Kemp said.
"The risk for Under-18 schoolboys is about half that of the professional game. For Under-10s it drops even further. Rugby is a different game at that level."
At the end of the brutal 2009 British and Irish Lions tour, Dr James Robson raised concerns that players were becoming too muscle-bound and being asked to play too much high-intensity rugby.
While that tour contributed to the perception of rugby becoming more dangerous, Dr Kemp explained the experiences of single teams cannot be taken in isolation.
"At the last IRB meeting we looked at all the good quality data since the turn of the millennium. There simply isn't a year-on-year rise of injury risk," Dr Kemp said.
"The value of studying the whole league is that it smoothes out the club-by-club variations. To infer rugby is more dangerous from looking at the injuries sustained by a single club or team at one point in time is invalid.
"This study gives strong enough information to be able to draw sensible conclusions."
Next year, the injury audit will use data from team conditioners and GPS units worn by players to help better understand how a player's training affects their injury risk at the weekend.
The audit will also specifically be studying players who have sustained concussion.
"When we first started the study it showed concussion was in the top five injuries. We then defined a clear and tight protocol for the identification of concussed players and returning them safely," Dr Kemp said.
"Next year we will test how robust the concussion management is. We will gather statistics from players before and after their concussion injury."