Rugby was first played under standardised rules in the early 1870s. In recent years, however, both players and coaches have been able to improve their performances using modern technology. Technology now extends to most areas of the sport, from the most basic equipment used to advanced techniques for analysing player performance.
The ball is perhaps the most crucial piece of rugby equipment. Although balls are still made in the traditional hand-stitched way, the materials used have been developed in a number of ways. The individual panels may have a slightly raised surface pattern to help players grip the ball, while wind tunnel testing helps improve the aerodynamics of the ball when it is passed or kicked. Manufacturers work with both top players and scientists when developing new balls.
Rugby jerseys have undergone massive changes in design since the 1990s. The loose cotton shirts with large rugby-style collars of the early 1990s and before are long gone, replaced by tightly-fitted jerseys with virtually no collar and made with performance enhancing fabrics. Moisture is quickly wicked away from the skin, keeping players cooler and drier. Jerseys feature panels of material that help players grip the ball in wet conditions.
One company has even produced a jersey that claims to surround the body with a field of negative ions, which delivers a charge of "ionic energy" to a player's body. Although the benefits are unproven, a number of international teams including England, Australia and South Africa wore these jerseys at the 2007 World Cup.
Recent developments suggest that GPS technology may play an increasing role in the future of the game. In January 2010, the English rugby league club Bradford Bulls became the first in their league to use a GPS monitoring system with players. Players wear a small GPS device sewn into a vest under their playing jerseys, which collects information about the players' heart rate and their position on the field. Coaches can then utilise this information to help players improve their fitness and performance.
GPS and Injuries
GPS technology may also be able to reduce the risk of players picking up injuries. In 2009, the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) began a three-year research project using GPS devices to analyse the impact of tackles on players' bodies, with the aim of reducing the number of players suffering serious injuries such as dislocated shoulders. The RFU hopes that understanding how these injuries are incurred will help them develop ways to prevent them in future.
Not everyone within the sport has welcomed technology with open arms. New Zealand coach Graham Henry feels that the increased role of technology may be at the expense of the sport itself. "The quality of the ball ... is constantly improving," Henry said in 2009. "Guys are kicking the ball 60 meters these days because the ball has improved so much. Kicking is a skill but it is transforming the game."
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- Rugby Football History: The Ball
- "The Ionic Man: Will A Vest Decide Who Wins Rugby's Biggest Prize?" The Guardian; 8 September 2007.
- "Bradford to use GPS Technology to Track Players' Performance"; The Guardian; 12 January 2010.
- "RFU Hoping New Technology Will Shoulder Burden Of Cutting Injuries"; The Times; 20 October 2009.
- "Henry Slams Influence of Technology"; ESPN Scrum; 25 September 2009.