For the Lions, GPS plays important role in preventing injury as well as helping with players’ rehabilitation
Information provided by the device can determine how hard a player is working
The GPS devices which are transforming the modern game of rugby. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
All has changed, changed utterly in the professional era. Any player with longevity can testify to that, no one more so than Brian O’Driscoll, who has completed a 12-year Lions cycle and is now back where he started, revisiting Australia. He reflects on how the Lions prepared and trained in 2001 and comes close to laughing.
A different sport? “It is,” he says simply, “a different existence from 2001. The level of detail we go to. We did a long season in 2001 yet were still going out and doing an hour, hour and a half, sometimes two-hour pitch sessions, sometimes twice a day. If I did that now I’d have died a couple of weeks ago. You couldn’t survive that, such is the intensity of the games. You can’t train like Tarzan and play like Jane. You’ve got to do it the other way round.”
Indicative of this more scientific approach is the advent of GPS (Global Positioning System). As with Munster and Leinster, along with Sports Institute of Northern Ireland, Canterbury Crusaders, the Welsh, Scottish and US Rugby Unions, Toulon, Montpellier, Brive, Northampton Saints, Cardiff Blues, Bristol, Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Lions employ Catapult Sports, the self-proclaimed ‘global leaders in athlete analytics’.
Catapult were the first company to use sports-specific GPS units on athletes after two founders, mechanical engineers Shaun Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt, started a project with the Australian Institute of Sport in 2004 on emerging micro technology that was to be employed in sports sensors. The two men formed Catapult in 2005.
“There’s not a sport I can think of that we haven’t worked in,” explains Boden Westover, Catapult’s media and marketing manager, “but football and rugby are our biggest sports.” US College sport is their biggest growth area.
The GPS units are little bigger than a match box, and are generally worn on compression tops inside a match shirt or training top, and on the T1 section of the spine at the top of the back, “because that spot receives the best GPS signal and also when you land heavily that part doesn’t hit the ground”, says Westover. “There’s never been an instance of a player getting injured or a unit breaking.”
Inside each device is a GPS receiver, and processes this to a computer on the sidelines or in the stands. The screen will have a map of the pitch and a dot represents each player, which determines speed and distance covered by each player.
“The devices also have three inertial sensors. One is an accelerometer, which determines movement and collisions. Another is a gyroscope, which determines whether you’re standing upright or leaning forward or backwards. The third is magnetometers, which is an advanced compass to determine the athlete’s direction.”
There’s no hiding place any more. “The information can determine how hard a player is working,” says Westover.
Its main benefit, however, is injury analysis, both preventative and helping with rehabilitation. “GPS and inertial systems can be set up with individual alarms so that if a player reaches a certain threshold it will flash red, and coaches will know straight away that they need to get that guy off,” adds Westover.