How Premiership Rugby is Integrating Sports Tech

Harlequins versus Saracens

Professional rugby is an unpredictable game. The historic defeat of the seemingly unbeatable Springboks by the Japanese team in the 2015 Rugby World Cup proves that. But top Rugby club managers are beginning to integrate the latest in sports science and wearable technology to change the way their teams play and improve each player’s chances on the pitch.

 

GPS and Its Role in Improving Performance

How the Lions use GPS

Over the past decade, wearable tech has become synonymous with individual sports and athletics, though it has already been used for some time in team sports. The England Rugby team (The Lions) has a 16-year history of utilizing player tracking and team-movement devices, and back in 2001, a team of Japanese researchers used GPS to track the workload of referees in the Rugby Union.

In 2017, most Union, League and Six Nations rugby teams have incorporated GPS tracking into training and performance, measuring things like:

  • Distance covered
  • Maximum/minimum speeds
  • Real-time heart rate
  • Body impact load
  • Collision energy loss
  • Efficiency when running

This detailed information, combined with more old-school captures like hydration levels, help coaches and sports scientists to develop training programs that are tailored to each individual player. Rugby is one of the most physically intense team sports, and speed, strength and resilience to impact and contact are skills that modern players need. In addition to training programs, data gathered from GPS devices can also be used to inform game plans and strategy.

The English Premiership club the Harlequins is a team that was one of the earliest adopters of GPS and wearable tech. Each player in the club wears a small device placed on the back of their jerseys when training, the Catapult OptimEye S5, which connects to a powerful micro compressor capable of computing 1,000 data points per second. As Tom Batchelor, Lead Sports Scientist for the team has discussed, this sophisticated system enables team coaches to “track exactly what’s happening on the pitch”. The Harlequins have taken the use of GPS a step further, however, and created specific “scrum” algorithms. When five players wearing devices are aligned at specific angles, the algorithm recognizes this formation as a scrum. They will then “sync in a way where you can have them collectively tell you how long the scrum goes on for and how many scrums there were” explained Batchelor in a recent feature with Business Insider U.K.

Incorporating Apps for Holistic Well-being

Utilizing technology off the pitch

Premiership teams like the Harlequins understand that players can be affected as much by occurrences off the pitch as on, and a great effort has been made to monitor all areas of a player’s life. It’s common practice for teams to use video-sharing apps like Vimeo to access footage recorded during training sessions and competitive matches when off-duty, but Harlequins’ players also access specific wellness apps downloaded onto their phones.

Such apps monitor things like quality of sleep, recovery, general health and wellness, acute pain, chronic pain and recurring injuries through a series of daily questions. Each player scores their answer on a scale of 1 to 10. The answers are automatically recorded in a cloud document and can be accessed by Batchelor and his team to “direct where players are going on a day-to-day basis.”

The more rigorous the day before has been, such as a competitive match, then the higher the expected score. However, if a player is continually scoring 9s even toward the end of the week following a match, this indicates to Batchelor that a longer recovery period is required. Monitoring each player’s wellness in this way helps to prevent serious layoff by clearly indicating those who are at a greater risk of severe injury or exhaustion.

Revolutionizing the Game

Hawk Eye technology in the Rugby World Cup

Like many professional sports, rugby is no stranger to the use of the latest technology. The use of Hawk Eye ‘Smart Replay’ video replay technology during the 2015 World Cup was widely publicised and considered to be a landmark development. It was primarily integrated in matches that took place in England and Wales to provide Television Match Officials (TMO) with access to a number of angles, zoom and video replay functionalities, with the aim being to ensure consistency in refereeing decisions. As it turns out, Hawk Eye tech also supported player welfare because it helped match officials to identify serious injuries like head trauma and concussion.

Personal, wearable technology, like the Catapult OptimEye S5 and seemingly simple mobile phone apps, are also beginning to revolutionize many aspects of professional rugby. Compared to other individual sports like cycling and running, where only a couple of variables are involved, rugby has even more, which increases its unpredictability. In competitive running, for example, a training program could be developed based on only two variables: speed and time. An increase in speed will produce a decrease in time and is much more likely to bring about the win.

When it comes to rugby, however, other variables need to be taken into account like the shape of the ball, weather, pitch quality, individual player health and well-being as well as the fact that the outcome of a match isn’t just about being the fastest. Data gathered using GPS and wellness apps helps sports scientists to track and analyze the impact of these variables over a set period of time, making their efforts much more effective in the long-run.

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