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Throughout much of rugby’s history the sport was strictly amateur, with its administrators regularly imposing sanctions on players who they viewed as professional. This did not change until 1995, when professionalism was finally sanctioned by the governing body, World Rugby - then known as the International Rugby Football Board.
In the time since no game has evolved faster, and the product we see today is of significantly higher quality; there’s greater physicality, it’s faster, the fitness is better, there’s more tackles and fewer stoppages than ever before.
Nowhere is this more evident than when you analyse the size of the players. Since Rugby Union turned professional the average height and weight of players has increased by four inches and 14kg.
Whilst exciting for the fans, these developments do pose some issues for the sport’s administrators – particularly around player welfare and injury.
This has resulted in the adoption of rule changes, the introduction of ‘load passports’ at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, increased education around tackling, as well as an emphasis for Unions to universally adopt the Activate injury-prevention warm-up programme.
However, one club has now gone a step further.
Guinness Pro-14 side Ospreys have agreed a partnership with artificial intelligence company Zone7 to help manage and prevent injuries. They examine the results of a wearable tracker whose millions of data points can be accumulated to predict potential issues for each individual player.
Zone7 has pblished multiple case studies endorsed by clients that indicate their algorithms can accurately flag 75% of injury risks.
The California-based company was first introduced to Ospreys via James Davies-Yandle, chief executive at Y11 Sports & Media, the Hong Kong-based sports marketing group that bought a 75.1 per cent stake in Welsh rugby union side back in May.
“We are trying to be the innovator,” said Paul Whapham, Ospreys’ corporate brand director. “In general, rugby is probably behind the curve with use of AI and data implementation and that is largely down to the fact that we [rugby] are only 25 years old.
“I think that rugby is slowly catching up, but it is catching up far quicker than a normal trajectory that maybe football went on.”
Ospreys have history in pioneering rugby’s push for better injury prevention and understanding risk, having worked on the development of PROTECHT, a real time head impact monitoring system designed to improve player welfare and safety in contact sports.
“The PROTECHT system is now across a large number of clubs,” added Whapham. “No doubt once we start promoting the use of Zone7 then that will quite quickly catch on.”
This adoption could have huge benefits, not only for club rugby but for the international game, too.
“I think everyone is well aware of the pressure from media and partnerships and generating income that we want to make sure we have the best product on the field at all times. Which means there has to be a collaboration between international and club rugby and an understanding that the workload of these players is tremendous.”
“We want to support Zone7 and the game of rugby to roll that out across the board because, ultimately, it’s in our best interest to have that synergy between international and club rugby so that when players go away, they come back fit and raring to go.”
With Osprey’s winger George North recently becoming the youngest player to pass 100 Test caps for Wales, Ospreys will hope the technology can prolong his career even further. Still only 28, North has time on his side to surpass any figure set by current Welsh skipper Alun Wyn Jones, who himself passed the record held by legendary New Zealand star Richie McCaw during the autumn.
Watch Ospreys v Newcastle Falcons in the Challenge up from 2.45pm on BT Sport ESPN HD on Saturday 3 April.