Innovation in the game of rugby has skyrocketed in the last 20 years and whilst many of the tech-led innovations have related to fan engagement and sponsorship activation, the topic of player welfare has been forefront.
The issue of head trauma in sport generally, and rugby specifically, has never been so prevalent, with governing bodies across the board becoming aware of their responsibilities in this area. Whilst concussion is no longer the preserve of traditional contact sports, it is fair to say that rugby, with NFL, has led the charge in tackling this important topic.
This openness to innovation isn’t new, as the timeline from the Sports Technology Awards – the leading global celebration of tech-led innovation in sports – shows.
1906: Scrum cap debuted in South Africa and Wales fixture
1924: First commercially available studded boot
1938: Scotland beat England in first televised match
2001: TMO introduced into rugby union
2003: Skin-tight rugby shirts worn on the international scene
2011: GPS tracking devices worn by England in match shirts
2012: RefCam used in live rugby union broadcast
2013: Saracens play Premiership rugby match on an artificial surface
2015: Hawk-Eye allows multiple-angle, real-time and slo-mo replays
2015: O2 and England Rugby use Oculus Rift to provide 360° fan experience
2015: Behind ear microchipped adhesive patches worn to measure impact
2016: Ireland’s Aviva Stadium goes 100% renewable
2016: AIG’s VR wearable allows fans to experience the Haka
2018: ‘Spotter system’ with Hawk-Eye used to reduce undiagnosed concussions
2019: Gumshield technology directly transmits head impact data to medical staff and ‘load passports’, tracking quantifiable workload data introduced
Whilst the issue of head trauma continues to dominate it is surprising that a standardized solution has yet to be found. As the commitment to professionalism for women players grows as well, alongside female propensity to greater damage from injury, so will the requirement for gender equality in welfare.
So, what does the tech-led future hold for all players? In truth advances in this area have been sporadic but as all stakeholders, especially players, become better educated on the long-term repercussions of head trauma, technology, such as tracking analytics, improved head protection and gum shields, is more prevalent. Many female players, as the links between injury and menstruation are better understood, are opting to use period tracker apps, the first of which hit the mass market in 2015.
The big game changer is likely to be saliva testing but currently it is still relatively early-stage. One key barrier to a quantum leap forward is that NGBs need tech to be standardized, scalable and easy-to-adopt; until this is forthcoming, World Rugby’s main option will be judicious guidelines and law-making.