Posted: Friday, February 26, 2016
Our England rugby players are preparing for a decisive match against defending Six Nations champions Ireland at Twickenham this Saturday and much of their training will depend on the use of technology. The use of high tech systems in sport is nothing new, although rugby has been one of the most innovative proponents in recent years, and the ever-changing nature of this game has created constant demand for new systems and techniques.
The use of Television Match Officials (TMOs), whose job is to review footage of the game, was first introduced in 2001. Now at various points during a match, should the referee and touch official not be able to make a clear judgement call on the pitch, the TMO may be consulted for assistance. In order to view the footage, TMOs would request access from the TV broadcast to pause and replay through multiple different camera positions in order to reach their decision.
This method evolved with the introduction of Hawk-Eye technology, a system that was implemented fully into the game during the Rugby World Cup 2015 in order to assist the TMO in making accurate, quick and precise decisions upon request. The Hawk-Eye setup enables the TMO to have a live link of their own into a separate viewing area in which he or she has the ability to slow down play, rewind, pause and replay all necessary angles using a number of pre-positioned cameras located around the ground.
Rugby embraces cloud technology
As technology evolves, rugby teams are following business trends by migrating systems across to cloud network services. During the current Six Nations championship, you will see players and coaching staff consulting their laptops before, during and after matches. This use of technology to gather and analyse performance information was first pioneered by Sir Clive Woodward and has now become a critical aspect of the sport. The data collected in training and during matches can give modern day squads a potential edge over the opposition and with teams connecting up via the cloud, players now enjoy fast access to the latest updates, information, scouting videos and performance data. This enables both playing and coaching staff to link together and share information no matter where they are at that time.
Rugby players are also starting to don ‘wearable technology’ integrated within their equipment or clothing. A good example of this is the little box stitched within the players’ jerseys, located on the back between their shoulder blades. This small device, which you will see players wearing during all Six Nations matches, is a GPS tracker which is constantly syncing information of players’ movements in order to provide coaching staff a clearer picture of the game as it is happening.
GPS devices help track information such as the lines run by a player and the distances covered as well as their heartrates and levels of fatigue. This information is stored and accessed within the cloud allowing coaching staff to make informed tactical decisions as the match unfolds.
Greater information designed to increase player safety
Technology has also been used in rugby as part of a safety program, which was introduced in 2013 with the aim of increasing the awareness of concussion and its associated risks of brain injury. Concussion has long been a concern in contact sports and statistics have shown that in professional rugby, it occurs at a rate of about 3.9 per 1000 player hours (i.e. one case of concussion in every six games among all the players involved)’[i] . That’s why at some point during the Six Nations you may see a player being taken off to be tested for possible concussion after taking a knock to the head.
Concerns over concussion in rugby have led to the development of the RFU’s “Don’t be a Headcase’[ii] campaign. On its site, the RFU offers online videos, tutoring and information on this subject tailored to and available to players of all ages, coaches, match officials and healthcare professionals alike.
In order to combat cases of possibly brain injury, English Premiership team Saracens are also trialling an impact sensor called xPatches[iii] which are created by X2 Biosystems in America. These sensors, which are worn behind a player’s ear, are also used by both NFL and NHL teams. The objective of the device is to monitor any knocks which a player takes to the neck or head area with data being fed back to the coaching team to help them decide whether a player is able to continue playing or whether he or she needs to be removed from the field for testing.
Winning or losing a game of rugby can come down to the millimetres or centimetres gained or lost within the 80 minutes of the match. Players and coaches know it can be the smallest of margins in physical performance or technique that decide the outcome of a game, which is why they are pushing the use of technology in this sport to its very limit.
Let’s just hope the English squad’s technology outperforms that of the Irish this Saturday at 4.50pm.