INSIDE STORY: Genetic research offering insight into rugby’s future

Martyn Thomas 02:20 04/05/2015
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  • Man mountains: George North and Israel Folau.

    The end of this month will mark 20 years since Jonah Lomu announced himself on the global stage by trampling over, and at times through, defences at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.

    Lomu’s tournament would end in final heartbreak, but his phenomenal performances over those four weeks would help change the face of the game forever.

    Two months after the All Blacks winger watched Nelson Mandela present Springboks captain Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Cup, the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) declared rugby union an ‘open’ sport.

    Professionalism brought with it an ability for clubs and international teams alike to focus on training like never before. The result has been that players in every position have got markedly bigger, with the average player now 10.8kg (1.7 stone) heavier than two decades ago.

    Back in the summer of ‘95 most rugby fans had never seen a winger the size of 6’ 5” Lomu. Now they are commonplace, with George North, Julian Savea and Israel Folau just three examples. And while many fans carry with them a nagging doubt that such tremendous gains must be the result of synthetic help, a group of scientists are attempting to prove otherwise.

    Dr Alun Williams, a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, who specialises in sport and exercise genomics, is part of a team who are conducting research into the DNA of elite rugby players.

    Williams and his colleagues published an initial study in the European Journal of Sport Science at the end of March, and believe they have identified a variation of the myostatin gene that aids muscle development and could be carried by a large proportion of professional players.

    A sophisticated talent identification process at the elite level means these players are picked up and exposed to training programmes and nutritional advice at an ever younger age, thus explaining their size.

    “If you have someone who has a greater percentage of fast-twitch fibres, all else being equal, they have a greater ability to respond to a strength or power-training programme,” he told Sport360.

    “I think what the rugby clubs have done quite well over the last few years, since professionalism, is identify young, talented, physical athletes who also play rugby at a relatively early age. And those are the ones, therefore, that have this potential to respond to training.” 

    Dr Williams believes that any suspicion surrounding the use of drugs in the game at an elite level is borne out of ignorance of the power of genetics.

    Some high profile figures within the game, including Rugby Football Union (RFU) chief executive, Ian Ritchie, have admitted there is a problem with drugs lower down the sport’s pyramid. However, with the levels of testing at the elite level it is accepted by many as an issue reserved for the lower levels and youth ranks, among players trying to take a short-cut towards the top.

    “It’s a lack of understanding of the effectiveness of the talent ID system and the sport science support that goes on for years and years before anyone ever sees them as players playing for a Premiership side in England or whoever it may be,” Dr Williams added.

    “There’s probably five, six, seven or eight years of work that has gone into that young athlete and people just see them come onto the scene and think ‘how did they get there?’”

    Dr Williams’ theories would certainly appear to chime with the reality of life within a Premiership academy.

    Harlequins academy head coach, Howard Graham, revealed that when scouting for targets, the club look for players with a “frame” that will allow them to pile on muscle mass. Once in the system, they are advised on their dietary needs from as young as 12, and are given weight training programmes from 15.

    “They’ve got to have a frame to be able to put weight on them,” he said. “If you’re looking to play in the forwards at Premiership level now, you’ve got to be a decent height. Which means we can put the weight on that frame. If you’re only 5’ 6” you’re going to struggle.”

    Howard admits that when he is looking at a potential recruit, he will also look at their parents.

    Ever increasing size: Rugby's top players.

    That academy staff are looking at a player’s relatives is instructive. Research carried out over the last 20 years, and included in the study published by Dr Williams and his colleagues, has shown that muscle fibre type, BMI, height and body type are all largely inherited.

    As Howard says, if the mother and father are both small, “you tend to say ‘Well look, you might be able to put a bit of weight on, but you haven’t got the frame to be a back-rower at the highest level’. And that’s what we’re looking at.”

    Dr Williams and his colleagues admit that a greater understanding of the genetic characteristics of elite athletes could potentially lead to an enhancement of talent ID.

    But as they plan to continue with their Rugby-Gene Project, growing it substantially from a current cohort of 450 players from four tier-one nations, it is not only in recruitment that advances in this field can help. Indeed, both Graham and Dr Williams admit to reservations about whether bigger players have actually made for a better game.

    Where a greater understanding of genetics can definitely make a positive impact is player welfare; particularly in managing serious injuries, such as concussion.

    Brain injuries sustained on the rugby pitch are obviously a big issue at the moment with North, Jonathan Sexton and Mike Brown all having to take time out of the game recently.

    Indeed, a report released by the England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project in February revealed that the incident rate for concussion in the 2013/14 Premiership season was approximately 10.5 per 1,000 match play hours.

    More worryingly, that figure represents a 59 per cent increase on the previous campaign.

    Dr Williams, though, believes that genetic markers exist that could one day be used to identify players who are at risk of suffering a concussion, and help doctors, physios and coaches make better decisions about recovery times.

    “Force applied to the brain or physical stress applied to it will not produce the same response in everyone,” he said. “So, that is in terms of whether they actually get concussed in the first place, whether they show the symptoms to the physios and guys pitchside who are trying to make their assessment on whether they are concussed, or whether they need to leave the field.

    “Then, assuming that they are off the field and out of the game and they’ve got a period of recovery, how quickly people recover is influenced by genetics as well.

    “It’s a behavioural symptom, the brain function and what you go back to is cellular damage. You’re looking at inflammation, the ability of neurones to repair themselves in the face of the damage that has been applied to them.”

    World Rugby remains committed to ensuring the safety of players, though, and the governing body is keen to fund more research into traumatic brain injury (TBI). Rugby union has come a long way in the last two decades, and Dr Williams and his colleagues are hoping the next steps will include genomics.