Rugby in the Tech Age.

 

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there was a game. A sport, and they called it rugby. Rugby was a simple game, played on green fields and open spaces, hard baked earthen patches of barren soil, and thick heavy mud patches too. It was played in fair weather or foul. From bright sunny days to near-blizzards, through hail, rain, sleet and mist.

This was a game, a sport, that could be enjoyed by everyone. Big or small, fat or thin, slow or fast, tall or short, a rugby team could accommodate everyone. If you had a mind to play the game, the game welcomed you.

And you did not need much in the way of equipment to play the game either. A pair of shorts and a jersey, this is rugby so a proper heavy rugby jersey was preferable, but a tee-shirt or two for practicing could work, they would tear, mind you, it is a contact sport.

A pair of socks or two were needed. Perhaps the only real essential was a pair of rugger boots. (Even they were not critically essential if you were playing out on the wing on a dry field, some track shoes, tackies as some called them, would do.)

The attraction of the game was not only found in the physical endeavour out on the field, but also in the snug of the pub after the game. Great friendships blossomed in those special places, lifelong friendships….

Ivan Vodanovich, All Black coach of the late 60’s and early ‘70s in his book New Zealand rugby Skills and Tactics, said that “Rugby is the game for everyone” and so it was. Anyone could play the game.

Sadly, rugby has changed beyond recognition since those halcyon days of yore. Whilst the game continues to be a game for everyone down in the very bottom leagues and in the village pub teams and social clubs, at a more serious level the game has evolved, some might say mutated into something altogether different to the game that Vodanovoch knew back in the years when he was writing his book. (Published in 1982, it was the very first book I ever acquired in my early years as a rugby coach. It was invaluable then. Paging through it this morning it contains almost nothing of value for a coach in today’s world of rugby, the game he wrote about is almost unrecognisable in modern terms.)

Modern day players have become physical giants far removed from the average player in the yesteryear. They are huge, muscular, powerful athletes, trained to the peak of physical perfection, equipped with the very best equipment that modern science can provide. Their training programmes are scientifically devised, their every move is monitored, and their entire focus is on one thing, and one thing only, playing rugby.

If we turn back the clock to the 1960’s, the equipment used by coaches and players consisted of the clothing the players wore, a whistle for the coach, and a bunch of well used brown leather rugby balls, some more round than oval, some heavier than a brick.

There was not much more.

The only “technological” item was the scrum machine. Usually a metal sled, with some vertical bars wrapped layers of scrap material and old towels that the front row could set their shoulders against, and that was about it. The fancier machines had foam rubber pads, but nothing more than that.

Some of the wealthier clubs and universities had pretty fancy scrum machines, with cushioned pads and some springs to absorb some of the initial contact, other had simple welded sleds with a platform of sorts on which the backs could sit while the forwards scrummed against it.

At some training grounds you might find another innovative bit of technology; sturdy wooden posts, about 1,5 meters tall, cemented into the ground in pairs, about 1,5 meters apart. Old motor vehicle tyres were bolted or screwed to the inside of the posts, one tyre on each side of a pair of posts, with the tyres just about touching each other. Players were required to run at the tyres, aiming for the place where the two tyres almost met, and had to burst through the tyres as if bursting through a tackle.

Old tyres were essential parts of any rugby club’s equipment. A couple of heavy truck tyres, perhaps a smaller tractor tyre, would be attached to a chain, with a canvas sling at the other end. Wrapped around the waist of a forward, they were dragged along the ground up and down the side of the field, to build those leg muscles.

Tyres were arranged in long parallel rows, and players ran at them, stepping in and out of the tyres in a kind of rapid waddle……

Big, heavy duty truck tyres were flipped up and over by the forwards, strength training, on the cheap.

Telegraph poles were used to create low parallel bars, offset with one row lower than the other. Sit on one, hook your feet under the other and you have a rudimentary exercise bench for sit-ups and crunches. An innovative coach could use them for hyper-extensions and some other torturous stuff.

One end of a length of metal pipe was inserted into an old paint tin, which was then filled with cement and allowed to set, before the pipe was flipped over and the other end received it’s paint tin and cement. Voila! A rudimentary weight bar for training and conditioning.

Some of the more innovative coaches fell back on military experience and found some old wooden telegraph poles. Pole PT as it was known, teaching groups or squads of four or so players to work together to do exercises with the poles, running with the pole on the shoulders, lifting, swaying, bending… More torturous stuff.

There was not much more than that at the club level.

As the years progressed coaches and coaching became more and more analytical. More and more scientific, more and more technical. New kinds of equipment started to appear.

The great Welsh team of the 1970’s had some of the greatest coaching brains in the history of rugby. Ray Williams was the Coaching Organiser of the WRU, and together with the likes of Clive Rowlands and others, they developed new ways of training, using grids and channels as they were known, 10m squares marked with orange traffic cones that gave the coach the opportunity to practice skills and small unit tactics in a confined but controllable way.

( In the mid-1980’s I arrived at a club where they had never used this system, and when I asked for some traffic cones the club had no money in the kitty. “No problem!” said the Chairman of the club. “You will get them!” At the next practice each player arrived, carrying a traffic cone purloined from public roadworks, police road blocks, building and construction sites across the city. On the Tuesday we had no cones. At the Thursday practice I was given custody of 48 traffic cones, of varying sizes and different shades of orange. When I looked to ask the Chairman, he just shook his head and said “Don’t ask!”)

Tackle bags started to make their appearance. The first I ever encountered were made from the repurposed canvas of some old army tents, hand sewn by some long suffering club wives into rough tubes about 1,5 meters tall, and then filled with a mix of wood shavings and sawdust. They were as heavy as sin and almost as hard as tackling a tree stump, but they were a harbinger of better ones to come. (Their weight made them very good for some more torturous squad training. Get a pack of forwards to run up and down the field with two of those bags… The air turned blue!)

Various coaches started to use innovative methods for tracking the action on the field of play. I learned a system from the provincial head coach pf the old South West Africa team that was then playing in the Currie Cup A Division, Henning Snyman. An innovative thinker, he used a hardcover school notebook with block printed page. Before a game he manually subdivided each page into a couple of lines for every minute of the game, and then he would use a series of personal shorthand symbols that he had invented to jot down the action as it happened on the field, ticks and crosses, boxes, squiggles and lines that signified everything from a lineout to a forward pass, an angled run to a grubber kick. He used the players jersey numbers to keep track of individuals, and a series of numbers to indicate where on the field the action was taking place.

It was a complex system, but it worked, once you had mastered the symbols and the processes.

This allowed him to have a minute by minute playbook of what had happened out on the field of play. He used it very effectively to provide individual feedback to players, as well as to analyse the problems, strengths and weaknesses of his teams.

Of course, his job became enormously less complicated as domestic and professional video cameras came onto the market, and started to become affordable. (Not all games were broadcast on TV in those days, and not everyone had a VCR. Some rugby unions simply could not afford the cost of that technology.)

Tech Today

Which brings me, in my usual roundabout way, to the impact that technology has on the game of rugby today.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I started my journey as a rugby player and then a coach, the technology we had available consisted very much of the stuff I mentioned earlier. Some of the luckier ones, the university students and the military conscript teams, had access to a gym, a weight training facility perhaps, and even a swimming pool. The open clubs who did not have the state as a sponsor, directly or indirectly, had to make do with whatever they could conjure up or scrounge.

Today the entire world is awash with technology. And sport is no different.

Televisual Technology

We have become familiar with the use of television and video technology by the match officials, the much-debated TMOs of the world.

However, this is not the only use of these visual technologies in the game of rugby. Teams use video recordings to analyse their own games, and those of their opponents.

Every move, every scenario is scrutinised to see how each opposing team reacts under different circumstances. Individual players are analysed in the same manner. The positional play of opponents, whether they are left-handed, right handed, or ambidextrous and their passing and running strengths and weaknesses. Their tackle techniques, a weakness on one foot or the other. Even the different binding techniques in the scrum are visually scrutinised and dissected.

Cameras follow individual players to see how they set themselves up in defensive and attacking situations. Team game plans, systems, tactics, everything has become an open book thanks to video technology.

Hot Pants

Two or three weeks ago I posted a snippet about Eddie Jones’s England squad having heated trousers to ward of the icy chill of the side-lines at Murrayfield in Scotland. The reserves on the bench would have nice warm leg muscles when he deployed them later in the game.

The trousers work exactly the same way as do the tyre heaters used to warm up the tyres of Formula One racing cars. Eddie was not the first to use the idea, he borrowed the idea from British Cycling who introduced heated shorts for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The product’s creator, Lizard Heat, says that the trousers are designed to heat deep into the muscle.

According to their website, the trousers are rechargeable, have their own power packs, and have three temperature settings, low is 38-42℃, medium 40-45℃, and high is 45-50℃. (Did not seem to help England much…)

Let’s take a look at some of the other technology used in rugby.

The GPS Tracker, Body and Activity Monitors.

Observant rugby fans will have noticed a little rectangular insert in the players’ jerseys, right between the shoulder blades.

They are GPS and Body monitors.

First used by  England back in 2015 as a method for analysing training sessions, the technology has developed way beyond the training field. These little GPS monitors provide to less than a quarter-meter accuracy on every step a rugby player takes. How much time he spends standing still, walking, jogging, trotting, at half pace, running and sprinting. How much ground he covers, and where he was on the field of play at any time, and in relation to the other players in his team and the ball itself.

The system monitors how many accelerations and decelerations they made, and has even reached the stage where the impact level of a tackle, a fall, a thump or a bump can be quantified and related to the player’s performance.

Blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate; much like the engine of a Formula One car, almost every aspect of a player’s physical state can be measured, right there on the field of play.

Not all teams are using this technology to the full, but almost every team, even at club and school level, is using the basic minimum GPS tracking data

The data is used to better understand the type and intensity of movements that players are being exposed to, allowing coaches to better understand the demands of the game so that they can plan training sessions that specifically address those demands.

 Some coaches like the concept of GPS watching the players all the time, with the players aware that they are being watched. A Big Brother concept, in sport. If you know the coach is watching, you are less likely to slack off and take it easy.

The great benefit, of course, in using GPS units during training and during games is the ability to accurately monitor players’ on-field effort, pushing players to an optimal level of work duration and intensity, and simulate match scenarios.

Some of the GPS systems have been developed into full activity monitoring devices, even during periods of rest and recuperation, everything, even sleeping hours and patterns are analysed. This gives the club or team’s the sports science and medical teams the ability to assess the effectiveness of their personal management systems to maximise rest periods and sleep. (Saracens in England were one of the first clubs to introduce this level of monitoring.)

Portable Testing Devices

Accurate measurements of the health and fitness of players on an ongoing basis are used to determine whether they are ready to train or play at their peak of performance. This knowledge can also enhance player longevity, which is high on the agenda given theincreasing injury rates and demands of rugby.

One device that has been used for such measurement is the Omegawave Sport Technology System. This system monitors the function of multiple biological systems and provides a comprehensive picture of changes in players as they respond to training, life choices and emotional stress.

The Omegawave system assesses the functional state of the organs and systems (cardiovascular, metabolic, neurohumoral, neuromuscular and sensorimotor) that either define or limit physical work capacity.

The system generates a report that identifies any limiting factors that may need to be taken into consideration when planning the day’s training activities. It is also helpful for determining the cumulative effect of game-time, practices, and individual workouts.

Body Composition

The assessment of body fat ratios to muscle mass, bone density, and other biological information about a player has also become a regular part of a professional player’s life.

One of the methods used for assessing body composition analysis is dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA).

This system separates the body into fat, bone and lean mass while also calculating data about the arms and legs.

A major benefit of DXA is its ability to measure lean mass and the differences between limbs. Players can set targets for fat loss and muscle gain, and regular DXA scans can be used to assess their progress.

DXA scans can be used to compare development between the start and end of pre-season training, and then to assess the player’s body composition during the actual playing season too.

This information allows coaches to monitor whether greater levels of physical contact causes significant losses in muscle mass, and to adjust training programmes, rest and activity schedules, and nutrition schedules to help compensate for problems that are identified.

Player Monitoring and Management Software

The increasing amount (and the wide variety) of data that teams are collecting have led to the creation of specialised software packages to analyse and examine the data. Many packages and systems require the players to regularly enter information about their personal well-being, such as sleep quality, relaxation activities, diets, injury history, and perceived energy levels plus training and game load feedback. This information is supplemented by data loaded by the coaches and management staff. Fitness reports, psychological reports, medical reports, practice data gleaned from GPS and body monitoring systems.

Coaches and players use the system to review player status, monitor the effects of training, identify areas that need remedial action, and predict the chances of injury. The system is used to help create managed training schedules and caters to virtual coaching (e.g., sending important updates and individual player messages).

 Drones

Drones have become incredibly popular in recent years. Rugby has also taken to these irritating little intruders with a vengeance. The drones are used to film training sessions, practice matches and actual games. This has benefits beyond the simple use of video technology, the drone can film those parts of the field that a standard camera does not focus on.

The drone footage illustrates where the spaces on the field develop during certain moves or plays. The footage provides a broader view on the shape of a team in defence and attack, the movement of the players, and the development of off-the-ball opportunities or threats.

Sometimes seeing is believing and drones fill that need.

Grippy Gloves

Grippy gloves used to be all the rage with some well-known international players like Matt Dawson and Stirling Mortlock. Modern waxes and grip enhancing sprays have replaced the glove in many teams, but smoe players still use them.

The gloves are designed to give extra grip, especially when the ball is greasy and wet.

Law 4, regulating player’s clothing,  does not discourage the practice, as long as the gloves have open fingers.

Cryo-Chambers

Cryo-Chambers subject a player to intensely cold temperatures, so his body releases endorphins, which allows recovery from injury or the strain of a heavy practices session faster.

The treatment also reduces inflammation and swelling.

It is believed that this type of therapy can allow players to train up to three times a day.

Whole body cryotherapy started in Japan in 1978 and despite being uncomfortable for players, it is said to work.

The Welsh national side used cryotherapy before the 2011 World Cup and they continued to use them throughout the 2012 Six Nations.Italy also used a cryo-therapy chamber as a build up for the 2015 World Cup in England.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality has moved from the computer gaming world into the rugby gym! It is used to enhance complete conditioning by creating realistic simulations of a rugby environment with audio, tactile and other forms of feedback.

The CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) is an advanced system for immersive virtual reality that was developed at the University of Michigan.

Researchers and coaches are using the CAVE to simulate the American football stadium environment and exposing players to specific aspects of a game to enhance visual perception (e.g., estimate distances, enhance awareness of other players and speed up reactions).

A number of rugby teams have started to employ this type of technology as well.

 

Personal Gear

 

Gum Guards/Mouth Guards: Way back in the 1970’s and even in the 1980’s very few senior rugby players wore a gum-guard. Today even junior-school kids will not take to the field without that simple little protective device.

The device is not meant to protect your teeth, although that is one of the side-benefits to the gum guard. The device is primarily intended to absorb and reduce the shock of a blow to the head, and help reduce the concussive effect of that blow.

Strapping: We all remember that stretchy elasticated thing called a knee-guard or an ankle guard. They were really not much good, they simply squeezed the limb or joint to which they were applied, but they did give some players a bit of confidence that a wonky joint or limb could play a game of rugby.

Strapping tape and techniques have gone through a steady evolution during the last thirty years or so. Manufacturers of those tapes and plasters did their research and then provided training courses on how to strap different limbs and joints for different purposes. (I know, I did the Elastoplast Course….. I have a certificate somewhere, and a manual that reminds me how to do the Gibney Basket Weave to help a stretched hamstring, and the Ankle Lock around the outside of a boot, or the Knee Brace for the ACL…..)

Modern day strapping is an entirely different kettle of fish. There is a huge variety of strapping tape available now. Each type has a different purpose. Some stretch one way only, other compress a muscle, others provide supportive strength to a suspect ligament, yet others provide vertical, horizontal, or lateral support to a particular muscle or joint.

That old yellow threaded Elastoplast tape of the 1970’s and 80’s is now only used to stick a lock forward’s ears down in the scrum!

 Head Gear: My first scrum cap, bought back in the late 1960’s was simply a device to protect a lock forward (me) from getting cauliflower ears from the abrasive effect of shoving my head into a scrum between a prop and a hooker.

It was useless, and an impediment on the field. You could not hear anybody, even the ref’s whistle was just a hint. And the top of the scrum cap provided opponents with an ideal handhold in the loose scrum!

Modern scrum caps are protective head gear that provide much more than just protection for the ears. They have a layer of shock absorbing “Sorbothane” or some similar “memory foam” to help shield the head from concussive impact. They protect from cuts and bruises too.

Even backline players often wear these modern caps.

Wind Monitors

Garmin, one of the world’s premier suppliers of GPS devices, have developed a wind monitoring device that attaches to the rugby goal post and connects with a smart watch worn by a team’s kicking coach.

This provides the coach with accurate and immediate information regarding the wind direction and speed. The coach and players can learn to understand the impact that the wind strength has on different kicks and techniques.

This helps improve kick accuracy come game day.

 Physiotherapists and Biokineticists

 Physiotherapists have been around since forever, I was taken to one back in my very early junior school days due to, of all things, a swimming injury incurred during training! They have been part and parcel of every rugby club’s support infrastructure. Even in the smallest clubs, a physio’s telephone number would be scratched on the telephone booth wall in the change-room or club pub.

The Physio’s primary job is to help the injured rugby player get over the injury and back onto the playing field.

Today the Physio’s job has expanded somewhat and they are the specialists in dark arts of that strapping I mentioned earlier. They are also specialists in post-game muscle treatments, cooling down, and avoiding stiff and sore muscles after a game. They either provide sports massages themselves, or oversee the massage therapists that have become part of every professional team’s environment.

 Biokineticists are completely different to Physios. They are trained in the science of movement, and are specialists in how a sports’ person, in our case a rugby player moves, runs, walks, pushes, pulls, twists and turns. They analyse the gait of the sprinting wing or the jogging prop in order to provide information and training methods to increase or improve the efficiency and speed of the player.

They analyse and record the angle of legs, hips, backs and shoulders of the lock in the scrum, to help find the most power and the most leverage.

They are also critical in the rehabilitation of injured players.

The Biokineticist prescribes exercise that has a scientific background and is evidence based.

In the rugby world, a Biokineticist focusses on:

  • Pre and post-operative rehabilitation
  • Sports/ orthopaedic injury rehabilitation
  • High performance training
  • Muscle imbalance correction
  • Postural correction
  • Sport specific training

In essence, the Biokineticist is the scientific version of a personal trainer.

Physiotherapists and Biokineticists work closely together in their approach to improving the lifestyle, health, injury rehabilitation, and training methods of individual rugby players.

Nutritionists

Back in the good old days, on the day before a game, a rugby player would fortify himself with a good steak and chips, with a beer or two to wash it all down. That meal was considered essential for the strength it gave the player….

Then someone came up with the idea of “carbo-loading” – eating a massive amount of carbohydrates to get energy supplies into your system before a game. Who will forget those heaped plates of steaming spaghetti bolognaise? The Mac & Cheese lunch… No more heavy steaks, no more burgers… The chips were okay, but in moderation. No beer before a game. (Yet, beer is loaded with carbs!)

Somebody got the idea that players needed more than a quarter of an orange to suck on at half-time. What about something to give them energy in the second half? Maybe some corn-syrup sachets? Glucose energy sweets or drinks? Salts and minerals?

There was all sorts of talk about isotonic and hypotonic drinks, energy and sweat replacement formulas, even the temperature of the water given to players before a game and at half-time.

All this nutrition stuff quickly became a specialised science, and we saw the arrival of the Dieticians and Nutritionists.

Today all the professional clubs and squads have a professional Sports Nutritionist attached to their staff.

The sports nutritionist advises players on nutritional regimes that will allow for optimal performance and teaches them to understand the effects that foods have on the human body.

They advise on the types and quantities of foods and fluids that should be consumed by the player.

The nutritionist will devise diets for individual players, given their particular body types, training routines, and athletic goals.

Eating has become a science, with nutritionists using all kinds of technology to assist them in their tasks. From Body Mass measurement devices, Body-Fat measurement, muscle biopsies, computerised systems. It is all so vastly different today.

Training Equipment

 At the beginning of this article I spoke about the basic training equipment and aids that were available in the days of yore. The scrum machines, the home-made weights, the old tyres.

Things are very different today, with professional clubs and teams having enormously well-equipped gyms with the most modern training equipment imaginable. Think of the local gym where you go for your workout, and now add some really high-tech equipment that allows for resistance training, explosive muscle training, strength training, and all sorts of stuff that most of us have no idea what it is used for.

Those old saw-dust filled tackle bags have been replaced by a whole range of contact training bags, pads, and tackle bags. There are bags designed to hold the ball in some bungee cords or Velcro straps so that a player can charge into the bag and rip the ball from its grip. There are tackling rings that the player chases, knocks over, gets up and rips the ball from its grip. There are protective suits and shields worn by players that act as the target for tacklers, mauls, driving into contact.

There are variations to the tackle-bag that simulate a player lying in the ground after a tackle, so that players can practice competing for the ball on the ground. There are specially designed sleds that allow players to develop the core strength they need while over the ball at a breakdown….

There are different kinds of hooker lineout throwing targets – gone are the days of the hooker aiming for a mark on the posts, or the crossbar. Modern devices have adjustable height targets, baskets, and catching bags.

Scrum machines have become super sophisticated devices, some fitted with water-filled roller wheels, others have motors that will push back against the players. Some have

variable springs and bungee cord devices to allow for give and increasing resistance. Some have variable resistance hydraulic dampeners and can be raised or lowered to simulate different scrumming angles.

There are speed-resistance parachutes that a player drags behind them, there are rebound nets to practice catching the ball at different angles, there are agility ladders to practice stepping, mini hurdles of different heights for stepping over players on the ground…

Kicking tees have replaced the heap of sand or the trough scraped in the field by the kicker.

Even the simple act of handling a ball has been enhanced by the introduction of ointments and sprays that provide extra grip to the fingers and hands.

How has technology influenced the sport of rugby?

Technology has undoubtedly changed the game of rugby in the modern era. The advent of professional rugby brought enormous amounts of money into the game; television broadcast contracts require a “product” that will attract viewers, and that places a huge burden of expectation on the professional clubs and franchises. They need to perform at their best in order to attract their own sponsors and advertisers at their grounds, on their equipment, and the like.

In order to meet the expectations of the broadcasters, the owners, and the sponsors, and the fans, rugby teams have had to up their game to the highest possible standards. This led them directly to looking at what technology could do for them. They will always try and find a method, a system, a gadget, or an aid that will help them gain the edge in performance.

Technology provides some of the systems, the gadgets, the aids that the coaches and support staff need to prepare their charges to perform at the highest levels with increased consistency.

Technology allows coaches and support staff to monitor the players in so many different ways, enabling them to find the best possible systems, processes and programmes to prepare the players, as individuals and as a team.

Technology allows the gathering of data from GPS devices, heart-rate monitors, video analysis, force platforms and gym-based monitoring devices.  Technology allows the scientific tailoring of a player’s individual development plans.

Coaches now know and understand more about the demands of the game and how players respond to these demands; how a player recovers, how best to develop the player physically and mentally. They know more about injury recovery and rehabilitation than ever before.

Video analysts and sports scientists analyse every opposing team and individual players. They identify game plans, strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for their own team tounderstand and exploit. They know who can tackle and who cannot, they know who prefers kicking with the left foot and who likes to kick with the right foot. They know who steps and runs better off the left foot or off the right. They know who can pass, and who will drop a kicked ball.

Technology has also contributed to the training and match preparation through the provision of advanced equipment and aids that were unknown to previous generations.

What does the future of technology in rugby look like?

Technology changes so fast, who knows what the future holds? Who would have predicted those GPS and body monitors in the back of the jersey? Who thought that drones would be useful in a rugby practice? Cryo-chambers for injury recovery?

I for one, almost a Luddite in some areas of technology, who has not yet quite figured out how my digital watch works, cannot even think to predict where the technology of rugby will go in the future.

Rest assured, it will be there!