Technoball, rugby between fatigue and technology

Rugby is still physicality, technique, sweat and teamwork. But technology and data are a decisive support for coaches and athletic trainers who, with drones, GPS trackers, hardware and software, are able to track players' performance in real time.

Ears stretched in the fray, noses broken under the quads of opponents. Rugby is not football, and you can see it right away. Yes, the field is green, nothing new but there is also a door in the shape of an H, it is called the goal, one centimetre beyond the white line and marks the points on the scoreboard. OK so you have to take the ball with your hands to the bottom of the altar, running forward but passing it backwards to one of the other 14 team-mates.

This is the most beautiful rule of rugby, because it imposes the sharing of the athletic gesture. In rugby the centimetres count, the metres count, a step more or less, in advance or too late with the ball in your hand means a tackle and starting over. It means more effort not only for you but for your entire team. 

Head of performance: the rugby ghost player

But the kilos of cast iron, the more or less heavy loads, all the exercises must be monitored and analysed to exploit their maximum potential. For example, Italian rugby needed a new professional, who arrived last June directly from Leicester: Pete Atkinson, 48, English, Head of Performance for the national team and the franchises wanted by coach Conor O'Shea.

He is the man who becomes the point of contact between players, training and technology: "We make use of external resources and technological tools that can help us understand the starting level and track improvements, also creating work protocols on days of training without contact with the goal of managing injuries while maintaining a high level of fitness. In any case, we prefer to work with the sniper rifle principle, rather than with the pump rifle. Every athlete is different and, based on the tests carried out and the feedback from these tests, it is possible to adapt the workload".

Real time data: the technology that leads to the goal

But what technology is Atkinson talking about? It starts with GPS sensors that allow you to track various parameters such as the total distance, the distance covered at high speed, high acceleration or deceleration, the average metabolic power or the total energy expenditure. With the aim of reviewing the training and competition sessions, the genre and intensity of the movements, giving the coaches useful data for planning a game plan for a match. We then continue with other hardware and software platforms that can return data in real time (or in any case in less than a minute) on the neuromuscular performance and fitness of the players.

In short, you don't look at the stars to see what way to go to train a national team but, for example, raising a drone in the sky is a good strategy. Already, a camera in flight over the field brings a new perspective of observation compared to that from the edge of the field: "The drone has its importance in the quality of the image it produces - explains Simonluca Pistore, video analyst assistant of the Italian Rugby Federation - with a photograph from above that allows us to see well the disposition of the players on the field, to understand their depth and distribution during the actions.”

Statistical technology and intuition, two good teammates

It is therefore not wrong to consider a player as a user who, every day, browses the web, makes a purchase on an ecommerce platform, checks and posts a message on social media, now aware of being tracked and profiled, to receive targeted offers according to their online habits.

Because this and many other sports is a challenge that is now played on the field of data and their aggregation, but always to support the choices of professionals, as confirmed by Atkinson: "Of course, technology has a growing impact in the world of professional rugby and, since it is the individual details that make the difference, all these tools gain value if they have an impact on the development of the athlete. That is, I believe that technology can enable us to make the best choices, but that it cannot replace the human aspect and perception in the selection process".

Something that comes to mind, is the film Moneyball with Brad Pitt in the role of Billy Beane, the true (former) general manager of the baseball team Oakland Athletics who in the early 2000s hired a young graduate in economics at Yale to assess players by sabermetric, analysis through game statistics. On the one hand numbers and data, on the other the experience and intuition of the observers. Two components that must find a perfect cohabitation agreement, since today rugby also has its own match analysis platform developed with IQUII, which brings together the available data and analyses them transversally, composing a database of players divided by role for monitoring performance both technical and physical.

Men and reports, players and fatigue, sweat, an inch at a time to the goal.
As Al Pacino would say in Every cursed Sunday: "This is being a team of my lords, either we rise now as a collective or we will be annihilated individually".

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