Rugby Study: Extremely Low COVID Transmission Rate in Contact Sports

rugby study looks at contact sports and covid transmission

COVID transmission rate tested with professional rugby league

What is the relation of contact sports to the transmission of COVID-19? A study conducted by the British Journal of Sports Medicine says there may not be one. In the study, they analyzed professional rugby players over the course of 36 league matches. There were 34 players in each match (17 per team). Rugby is a very close contact and physical sport. It’s ideal for showing the most likely transmission results from participating in contact sports.

The rules of the study required each player, 136 players total, to return a negative COVID test within seven days of each match to be able to participate. Tests again took place 48 hours after the match, where anyone who tested positive was sectioned off and sent to quarantine for 14 days in accordance with Public Health England. Additionally, some players were labeled as “increased risk contacts”.  These individuals were anyone within 1 meter face-to-face for more than 3 seconds. Increased risk contacts isolated for 14 days.

State-of-the-art microtechnology player tracking precisely displays exact player distance

To determine increased risk contacts, video footage was taken during every match to identify which players came face-to-facemicrotechnology tracks covid spread in contact sports within 1 meter of an infected player for longer than 3 seconds. Slow-motion video examined each tackle and ball carry in-depth. Still, sometimes, the distance was difficult to detect on video. All players also wore microtechnology devices for the study. The microtechnology uses GPS (global positioning system) to track players’ exact positions in relation to one another. The GPS allowed the researchers to collect exact distance data for increased risk contacts. They could see who really was within the 1-meter boundary.

Contact or community? How social activity is potentially more risky than sports

In just 4 of the 36 matches played, only 8 players developed symptoms within 48 hours and returned a positive COVID-19 test. In one match where players tested positive, 12 individuals received a positive COVID test within five days. 5 of those individuals did not even participate in the match. They did, however, share car rides together and had other social interactions. The 12 positive results probably resulted from an outbreak in the rugby club due to social interactions rather than match play.

In a second match, again, there were reports of social activity with club members off the field. 3 of the 6 players who tested positive, oncesocial interaction with rugby club leads to covid transmission again, did not play in the match. Similarly, in another match, there was nothing in the GPS data or video monitoring that would lead to the fact that actual match play had anything to do with spreading the virus. Instead, it had more to do with the club community. Players spending time together outside of playing contact rugby.

Rugby study results surprising

No other known study presents video footage compiled with GPS tracking of individuals actively infected with COVID-19 and participating in contact sports with other non-infected players. There were 8 players who participated in the league matches and tested positive within 48 hours after the match. 28 players met the criteria for being “increased risk contacts”. The 1 increased risk contact who did test positive for COVID-19 also engaged with COVID infected players after the match was over. He likely contracted the virus there as opposed to during match play. Also, other players and staff not included in this study tested positive while partaking in non-rugby club activities and interactions.

The exceedingly low number of transmissions could be a result of the very short durations of face-to-face contact during asports ball transmitting covid match or from the well-ventilated outdoor environment. Further observations revealed that the classified infected individuals repeatedly touched the ball. Many other players also touched the ball dozens of times over the course of the entire match. This leads researchers to believe that the ball itself is not a serious contributor to the spread of the virus.

This study does have some limitations, such as the small sample size and player tracking occurring only during matches. Nonetheless, the ways in which the study analyzed the players is the first of its kind for COVID transmission testing in contact sports.

Contact sports have weak link to COVID-19 transmission

The study ultimately found that no match officials tested positive for COVID-19. Even more important, the transmission of COVID in an outdoor environment appears to be very low despite frequent close encounters during match play with other infected players. The data showed that social interactions taking place off the field with teammates and other league players likely were the greatest cause of transmission, not the playing itself. After assessment of the study’s data, it is fair to conclude that higher-risk sports like rugby call for a re-evaluation in their risk of spreading COVID-19 as well as other close contact sports.

Ready to return to play? Re-open your organization today. Our COVID Return to Play guidelines will give you everything you need to minimize your risks to get your season up and going again. We have specialized return to play templates for teams/leagues, camps, tournament hosts, and facilities/studios.  Also, adding COVID language to your waiver/release form is a critical component: minor waiver/release, adult waiver/release, stand-alone COVID waiver/release.

How to return to play with reduced risks during COVID

Recent trends for return to play are positive for both non-contact, contact, indoor, and outdoor sports. The CDC and NFHS have recently revised their guidance based on the latest research. Note the following factors:

  • Perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on contaminated surfaces and equipment but perhaps not enough on social distancing and face masks while socializing away from the playing field.
  • Most COVID spread is happening off the playing field due to socialization.
  • To date, there have been no sports-related COVID transmission lawsuits based on negligence.

Many amateur sports organizations never totally shut down. Most of them have a year of experience under their belt with implementing the necessary mitigation techniques. Many that did shut down are now returning to play if allowed by state and local governments. If you’re an amateur team, league, coach, or sports organization that is looking to return to play, be sure to check out our blog entitled Updated: Amateur Sports And COVID-19: How To Return To Play. You’ll find links inside this blog to our COVID risk management materials, including COVID waiver/release, COVID risk warning signage, team/league mitigation, camp/clinic mitigation, tournament host mitigation, and facility/studio mitigation.

Be sure to check out our risk management resources for the latest on COVID, waiver/release, child abuse/molestation, brain injury/concussion, heat illness, general risk management, etc.

For the risks that can’t be prevented by risk management, be sure to see the customized sports insurance programs we have available for teams/leagues, camps/clinics, facilities/studies, tournament hosts, outdoors, etc. Most of our programs offer instant online quote/pay/print.



Ben Jones. Gemma Phillips. Simon Kemp. Brendan Payne. Brian Hart. Matthew Cross. Keith A Stokes. SARS-CoV-2 transmission during rugby league matches: do players become infected after participating with SARS-CoV-2 positive players?. British Journal of Sports Medicine. February 11, 2021.

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