The use of technology in rugby continues to gain popularity but the sport remains behind the curve, according to England stars James Haskell and Rachael Burford
When James Haskell started on his journey towards international rugby stardom, the idea of using technology to improve performance could barely have been further away from a priority.
But as the 34-year-old former England player winds the clock down on his career, he now believes the sport is on the cusp of embracing innovations like smart monitors and drones to improve performance.
‚ÄúTechnology has dramatically changed everything,‚ÄĚ he says during a discussion at Capgemini‚Äôs office ahead of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, a competition in which the tech consultancy is a global innovation partner.
‚ÄúNot always for the better ‚Äď sometimes we watch people trying to solve problems that don‚Äôt exist on programmes like Dragon‚Äôs Den.
‚ÄúBut in sport, technology has played a growing part in things such as GPS tracking of players to measure how many kilometres we cover in training and during games, but it‚Äôs only as good as the ability to use the data.
‚ÄúThe idea is everything should be down to individualisation. You can have team metrics showing how much your players are running but, as a player, you should be able to think about how the statistics actually relate to your performance on a weekend.
‚ÄúMaybe you run 5k each day through the week but 7k in a game, and you know that this is ideal to get the best out of your body.
‚ÄúBut a lot of teams use the data to bash you rather than use it in a positive way ‚Äď they‚Äôll say ‚Äėevery time you come have a day off, you come in an under-perform‚Äô when there may be all sorts of reasons behind that.
‚ÄúThis is where it‚Äôs really important that you use this technology in a good way. But in rugby, there‚Äôs so many benefits ‚Äď even in things like hydration testing to see if you‚Äôre drinking enough water.‚ÄĚ
At the beginning of Haskell‚Äôs career, during his first stint for Wasps in the 2000s, he would have to fill in a form every morning to rate his perceptions on various measurements such as his weight, sleep quality and pain.
‚ÄúI‚Äôd put down a five, which was the worst rating, but nothing would happen so I realised I could just put down whatever I wanted,‚ÄĚ he says.
‚ÄúAs things moved on and another coach came in, I‚Äôd put down a five and he‚Äôd say ‚Äėif you don‚Äôt want to be here, you can leave‚Äô ‚Äď so I really gave up the whole health thing.
‚ÄúWe always perceive rugby as a professional sport but actually I don‚Äôt think it‚Äôs that professional yet in the use of data.‚ÄĚ
Haskell, who says England head coach Eddie Jones has been a keen advocate of using real-time data and other innovations, believes in-game technology has advanced the most.
A lot of players now wear GPS trackers during matches and training to analyse performances, although the flanker admits even this area of tech hasn‚Äôt been used properly yet.
‚ÄúThe coaches would have a big screen with stats on each player and each time they made a mistake, it would flash up,‚ÄĚ says Haskell, who announced his retirement from professional rugby earlier this month.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôd say ‚Äėthat‚Äôs not good enough, get him off‚Äô because they were basing everything off those numbers.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think that happens now but the players are all wired up and analysed so it‚Äôll say he‚Äôs missed five tackles, he‚Äôs off the pace, we‚Äôre getting hammered in scrums. It all needs to be taken into context.‚ÄĚ
The biggest improvements, he says, have been in the recovery aspect of the game, with many teams using the cannabis-based CBD oil to treat pain.
Rachael Burford, an England women‚Äôs rugby international and Harlequins player, has also embraced technology.
She says one of her favourite pieces of tech are wellness apps that monitors metrics like heart rate, nutrition and sleep.
‚ÄúIt can show whether or not you‚Äôre ready to perform, and then work out what you need to do to be ready,‚ÄĚ says the 32-year-old centre.
Burford, who also runs a girls‚Äô rugby academy, highlights another free app called FitrWoman, which enables women to track their menstrual cycle.
It also provides personalised training and nutritional suggestions tailored to the changing hormone levels throughout their cycle.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôre in different phases every week so there‚Äôs certain things you should and shouldn‚Äôt be doing,‚ÄĚ says Burford.
‚ÄúThere might be a week where you need to change your nutrition to perform well at the weekend. This is important because there‚Äôs risks involved when you‚Äôre in your cycle.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a massive area that‚Äôs untapped at the moment ‚Äď this is something that affects women for a lifetime but it‚Äôs only now that it‚Äôs starting to get some recognition.‚ÄĚ
While the men‚Äôs game may not exactly be state-of-the-art when compared to sports like football, the women‚Äôs game continues to lag far behind, believes Burford.
‚ÄúWe still have a way to go for data,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúOnly two years ago, I came back from a shoulder injury and had a player on the bench counting the number of contacts I had.
‚ÄúOur analysis is coming on a lot but there‚Äôs still a lot of things like we don‚Äôt wear heart rate monitors, we just use GPS units.
‚ÄúSo we need to capitalise on these things and bring them into the game, whether it‚Äôs a question of finance or accessibility.‚ÄĚ
For Haskell, he believes one of the key issues that need to be ironed out is recruitment, saying there‚Äôs too many ‚Äújobs for the boys‚ÄĚ.
Instead of hiring people from within, he wants the sport to look further afield in order to integrate tech more effectively into the game.
He adds: ‚ÄúEvery rugby player you meet is battered and injured all the time, and they don‚Äôt comprehend the importance of sleep.
‚ÄúWearable technology would make a massive difference to that ‚Äď things like sleep tech and being able to test your blood consistency.
‚ÄúIn rugby, we over-train, under-sleep and under-rest. The NFL is the pioneer because you have a massive commodity and if it breaks down, it has a massive impact on the bottom line.
‚ÄúRugby is nowhere near that level financially so it‚Äôs taking time to filter down.‚ÄĚ