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Innovation in rugby clothing, equipment and technology

Phil Smith CTA
Technical Lead
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rugby player using innovative rugby tech

Rugby Union has been a hotbed of innovation for many years, particularly since the game went professional in the mid-1990s.

Interestingly, while the focus of innovation will always rightly be on how it affects and improves the game itself, it should be recognised that those seeking to achieve advances in anything from nutrition to smart fabrics are often able to qualify for R&D tax credits – a government scheme to encourage innovation. Let’s take a look at how rugby is benefitting from all the bright ideas, hard work and implementation of technology that goes into innovation within the sport.

Wearable tech in Rugby

Rugby players’ apparel has changed more than in most sports over the last 15 years or so. At the elite level, the heavy cotton jerseys that were once ubiquitous are not so popular. In their place are lighter, synthetic tops that are aerodynamic and wick sweat away. They are also less easy to tug effectively. But really this change is just the start of the journey when it comes to innovation in rugby wear. Wearable tech is making real in roads into this sport.

Catapult is an Australian athletics analytics company – named 12th most innovative company in the world by Fast Company in 2015. They develop small units with GPS trackers and body system monitors that are integrated into sportswear. Coupled with their powerful OpenField software they can provide coaches with a real-time, detailed dashboard of their players’ performance – both in training and in matches. The sportswear technology takes the guesswork out of knowing when a player is over-exerting and can also help inform tactical decisions giving a vital competitive edge. Incorporating application of GPS, Bluetooth transmission, algorithms, cloud technology and UX, there are plenty of potential areas of R&D going on in this field.

Irish giants Munster are one of the Rugby Clubs that use the technology. They have actually integrated Catapult’s system across their entire club – something that Catapult themselves say is unique – giving them a complete overview of performance.

Their Head of Fitness, Bryce Cavanagh, explains how it has changed the approach to training:

It can measure impacts, accelerations, decelerations, different changes of direction – numerous different data sets. We use that data to then compare players and monitor players and we’re now trying to take that monitoring to where it’s prospective rather than retrospective. So rather than looking at what happened and reacting to it, start to use it from a predictive point of view.

Quite an endorsement and really shows how technology in rugby clothing is driving improvement in the sport from behind the scenes.

From nails to blades – evolution of the rugby boot

Boots are another area of rugby clothing which have seen massive improvement over the years. Perhaps we could look back to 1845 to see just how far they have come. For that was the date when the first official rule regarding boots was introduced: “No players may wear projecting nails or iron plates on the heels or soles of his shoes or boots.” Ouch! Rugby today has a reputation for being a ferocious game but we bet most players would be grateful for that rule!

Boot innovation has largely been driven by football rather than rugby. Once the ‘protruding nail’ era was over, things took a while to develop and it wasn’t until 1924 that the first commercially available studded boot became available. It then took until the 1970s for the introduction of mass produced boots thanks to the development of moulded plastics technology – demonstrating how new manufacturing techniques are often a key driver of R&D.

More recently much research and development has gone into the shape of studs and the materials and finish of the uppers. Adidas pioneered this approach in the 1990s with the introduction of moulded blades. These were proven to aid speed and change of direction – benefits that prove attractive to Backs. Forwards have tended to stick to rounded studs which offer better grip. One thing is for certain, research and development has led to an awful lot of choice, and the buying decision around rugby boots is a complex one.

Sportwear technology: Helping hands

Bristol is in the heart of rugby territory out here in the West Country. So it would be remiss of us not to include some local technology. Inspired by the blue hands of his son as he came off the rugby pitch, the Managing Director of Alago developed an innovative heated glove system to help keep rugby players’ hands warm. This is more than a comfort thing though. Warm hands mean greater dexterity so better ball control when it comes to passing and receiving. Something all fans can appreciate in a free-flowing game.

And although inspired by rugby, the gloves now have a far wider application with variations on design producing versions for gardeners, cyclists, dog walkers and even to help people suffering from medical conditions such as arthritis. Alago can be seen pitching for investment from Dragon’s Den.

Rugby training

Rugby is a technical game with a variety of set pieces that require discipline and technique as well as strength and fitness. One company that has been addressing this through the design of specialist training equipment is Scottish-based Global Sports Innovations. They have developed and released two products in the last five years that focus on specific aspects of the game: the breakdown and the maul.

The Collision King helps train players in the breakdown. It has been engineered to encourage players to make contact at the right angle and height. If they fail to do this the machine will slide away laterally. Get it right and they can drive the machine backwards – all 90kg of it. In fact it can be even heavier as it has fittings for Olympic plates to be fitted.

The Maul King does the same job but for…you’ve guessed it: coaching technique in the maul. Again, it is a precision engineered piece of equipment that encourages the correct contact, movement and in this case: team-work.

Both machines have received endorsements from international coaches helping demonstrate that they have achieved an advance in technology as a training aid. Such an advance is one of the key criterion required for a project to qualify for R&D tax credits.

Nutrition and training methodology

Innovation in the areas of nutrition, training and management methodology has been rife since the game went professional. One simple statistic that sums up nicely how much these areas have developed is that the average rugby player is a staggering two stone heavier than their predecessors playing in the early-1990s. There is certainly scope for tax credits for research and development in the field of nutrition. It is harder to demonstrate for training and management methodology. In nutrition and supplements, as with most sports, there is so much regulation as to what can go into the bodies of elite athletes that there is bound to be an intensive focus on R&D to demonstrate and verify the composition and effects of specialist foodstuffs and supplements.

The digital world of rugby

One of our specialist knowledge bases is in digital R&D. And rugby technology has its fair share here too – we have already touched on this with the Catapult OpenField system. But the example we are going to look at is an iOS app: Ultimate Rugby. This was a winner of the AIG Rugby Innovation Challenge. It aims to be the first choice rugby application for portable devices. Comprising of huge databases of rugby information, it also draws in articles from rugby journalists around the world, Twitter feeds of players and other figures in the game, has compatibility with Facebook for certain functions, features e-commerce and has an innovative enhancement called UScore. This allows fans, parents or staff of local amateur clubs and academies to upload fixtures, scores and even commentary of live matches.

When it comes to digital, businesses can often struggle to identify the R&D going on. Particularly with the ever-increasing range of wearable devices available, with the development of apps you could be looking at integrations in the absence of APIs, e-commerce functionality, complex algorithms, custom CMS development and the creation of mobile friendly architecture to name just a few.

Rugby technology: Are you an innovator?

As you can see, there is massive scope for innovation in the field of Rugby (and off it). If you are developing new rugby products you should seek to establish if your research and development qualifies for R&D tax credits. As in the Rugby World Cup tournament there is a big prize on offer. But instead of the Webb-Ellis trophy you could qualify for a tax credit worth up to one third of your qualifying costs. Worth exploring, we think you’ll agree. To find out more, call our team on 0117 926 9022.