It is no bigger than a mobile phone and sits comfortably between the shoulder blades of some of the biggest names in rugby league. It records a “mind-blowing” amount of information and is transforming the way coaches and players view the game. It has been one of rugby league’s best-kept secrets – until now. DAVID TRIGGS reports
PIONEERING academics at the University of Chester are using satellite technology to improve the performance of elite rugby league players.
Warrington Wolves and St Helens are the two clubs benefiting from the groundbreaking work, carried out by staff and students at the university’s department for sport and exercise sciences.
The Super League giants are being kept ahead of the game thanks to having global positioning systems (GPS) fitted to players in matches and in training.
The GPS devices contain the same technology as the satellite navigation, or ‘sat nav’, systems used in cars and they enable students to track a player’s movements in great detail.
Slotted into a vest worn under the shirt, the units – which are no bigger than a mobile phone – are hidden from view. They cause the players wearing them no discomfort but the information they provide, when cross-referenced to other data from heart-rate monitors, is processed and turned into valuable feedback for coaches.
The two men at the forefront of the work are senior lecturers Dr Craig Twist and Dr Paul Worsfold, both based at the University of Chester’s Parkgate Road campus.
Craig explained: “You can look at heart-rate alone, but if you don’t know how that heart rate value has been caused it’s not as useful.
“By adding the movements, we get an idea of how the heart rate values during exercise are attained.
“We get an idea of the intensity of games or training sessions. We then feed that info back to the coaches so they can determine whether their training sessions are of the right intensity.”
From looking at the GPS feedback, coaches can see when and where their players’ performance levels drop off during games. They can work out how demanding playing multiple matches can be. They can also find out how hard players are working in training compared to matches.
It all adds up to making the GPS approach superior to the more traditional methods applied by rugby coaches for decades.
Paul, who specialises in biomechanics and performance analysis, said: “We’re moving on from the subjectivity you get from coaching, or just watching when you create your own opinions.
“Using computer systems, we can code games, actually measure what’s going on and link that to the GPS data.”
The GPS devices are worn by players for all of St Helens’ and Warrington’s home games in Super League.
The university even has postgraduate students working with the two clubs.
Dave Sykes, a PhD student, heads up the sport science for the Wolves’ Academy. MSc student Emma Edwards is employed full time by the Wolves as their head of performance analysis, while Mark Waldron works on a part-time basis with St Helens.
Paul and Craig have also branched into the world of football, working with the Liverpool FC Academy and Tranmere Rovers FC.
The link-up with the Wolves has been in place for five years, with Saints – the Manchester United of English rugby league – coming on board this year.
Coaches and players alike are taking to Craig and Paul’s methods and embracing their fresh approach.
Craig, who lectures in sport and exercise physiology, said: “Coaches are definitely buying into it and they’re asking questions and are wanting to use it. This is part of a very important education process.
“They’re using it in the right way – not as a tool to beat players with and say ‘you’re not doing that’. We’re trying to improve them. We’re trying to educate them.”
The GPS research means students get to work at close quarters with some of Britain’s biggest rugby league stars, from Keiron Cunningham to Paul Wellens and Richie Myler.
Craig added: “The players want to learn more, rather than just sit there and have blood taken from them or have a unit put on their back. Our job as sports scientists is to educate the athletes and the coaches. That’s a big part of what I enjoy.”
As Paul points out, it is no good simply being able to afford the GPS technology. You need the expertise to interpret the data and turn it into worthwhile feedback.
Paul, who played Academy football for Bournemouth before injuries led to him pursuing a career in education, said: “As sports scientists, we need to validate systems. There’s no point in us using the system based on manufacturer’s claims.
“There’s no point in just having it – it’s what you do with it that matters.”
Craig adds: “The thing is, there’s very little out there about rugby league in terms of research. You might say it’s in the dark ages in terms of sports science so we’re trying to move that forward. We’ve probably created as many questions as answers!
“If you could see what comes out of GPS data, it would blow your mind. There’s tonnes of data, and some of it might be as meaningful or as useful as we’d want it to be.”
There are about 300 full-time students in the department for sport and exercise sciences at Chester, with a further 150 based at the university’s Warrington campus.
Professor Ken Green, who is head of the department, is rightly proud of the work his staff and students are carrying out.
As he points out, using GPS isn’t just novel in rugby league – it is “novel in sport, full stop”.
He said: “This is the future of elite sport. It’s not just us scratching the surface, it’s elite sport scratching the surface. And we’re at the cutting edge.”