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The secret ingredient in Harlequins' title-winning transformation

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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It sounds like something madcap from a science fiction movie, gum shields with state-of-the-art microchips in them relaying a whole heap of real-time data measurements about head and body collisions in matches and training, but it isn’t. Instead, Harlequins’ use of the groundbreaking PROTECHTPro system was seen as crucial in their incredible transformation from January doldrums to stunning June Gallagher Premiership champions.

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Harlequins aren’t the sole rugby users of this potentially game-changing gum shield designed by Swansea-based Sports & Wellbeing Analytics. Premiership rivals Gloucester and Leicester are also Protecht advocates as are Ospreys, the professional club that sits right on the doorstep of this sports industry disruptor. They are mid to lower table clubs where the creation of databases that can be used to decide when players should rest are yet to have the same title-winning crescendo gloriously celebrated at Twickenham a fortnight.

Mike Lancaster, the head of medical services at Harlequins, and veteran scrum-half Danny Care have each spoken enthusiastically to their club’s in-house media about the invaluable data mined from the smart gum shield, but what have the champions of England done to make them so successful compared to other pioneers of this microchipped technology?

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Richard Lancaster, who was once viewed as one of the sharpest upcoming coaches in the Welsh system when Scott Johnson was Ospreys boss, is these days head of business development and marketing at SWA and he knows well from his days in a tracksuit how tough it can be to radically change things in teams that are losing more than they are winning.

That was the situation at Harlequins over the winter before the sudden exit of Paul Gustard created the perfect storm, encouraging the backroom staff to change tack and see where it might take them. “When you are losing it takes a very brave person to say well actually we are not going to do that today, we are going to do something different, we are going to give you the day off or whatever that may be,” said SWA’s Lancaster to RugbyPass.

“With Paul leaving when he did – and he is a fantastic coach – but when he left what it did was create a platform for the management at Harlequins, so Mike Lancaster had more of an opportunity to suggest this change and drive it. They were genuinely collaborative leaders there whereas Paul Gustard was the man. Take him away and everyone has got as much of a say in this as anyone else. That handed Mike the conditions, I suppose, to really drive this, to give it a go and be brave. There were other factors as well. There was no relegation, they were on a shot to nothing really because Paul was the accountable person and he was the one who was moved on.

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“The other guys there now at Harlequins had the opportunity to have a shot to nothing, so Mike believed in what we were doing (with the collected data), he drove it and took it probably a bit further than he probably would have been allowed to under a head of rugby.”

What resulted at Harlequins due to data gleaned from the smart gum shield was that more and more players were wearing white bibs at training, the indicator for their teammates that they were not to take any contact in that session. The monitoring ultimately led to overall contacts dropping 90 per cent and coincided with a day less being spent a week on the training pitch which helped to ensure an attention-grabbing drop in the injury rate.

“What we have done with Harlequins, Mike Lancaster said they had reduced contact in training by around 90 per cent but they managed to maintain match intensity. If you watched the semi-final, as it progressed Bristol fell further and further away and it was the fitness and freshness of Harlequins that carried them through. Same story against Exeter.

“Quins understood where redundant contacts might happen. It could be in a game of touch, the players are travelling high velocity and if they brush against each other that is a contact. Is that the objective of what they are trying to achieve? No. Is it required? No. So they just moved stuff like that out of their training programme and in their training contact. They train at match intensity but it’s for a purpose.

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“Off the back of that at the time of the season where you historically have players out longest with season-ending injuries, they saw their injury rates being the lowest they have been for a number of years, so player availability was higher. As you know if player availability is high then you are more likely to be successful.

“Rugby is a brutal sport because you are just on the treadmill. There is no breaks in it…. but Protecht allows you to find that sweet spot between making sure that they are prepared enough and proficient in technique and they can be effective in what they need to be effective in but not loading them up so much that they are likely to breakdown.”

Sports & Wellbeing Analytics was founded by a small group of investors in 2016, not to make a quick buck to come up with an innovation that could genuinely aid rugby’s long-term safety. It’s taken a while to get to here from there but having now had their methods tried and tested successfully at professional level, the hope is to eventually make this product available to the grassroots at a price equivalent to the cost of a good pair of boots.

smart mouth guard

“Why the company was set up is we want the sport to be around in 20 or 30 or 50 years. Our original investors are rugby people,” continued Lancaster, who retired from playing in his early 20s with a knee injury and has since coached at Mumbles, Swansea Uni, Ospreys age-grade and Swansea.

“What they wanted to do was take cutting edge science and technology and apply it to problems, and the biggest problem at the time in rugby was player welfare and concussion. They hoped to collect data around head impacts and understand the cause of concussion and that is where the journey started.

“They found very quickly there was nothing on the market that was accurate and reliable. There were neck patches that the Saracens guys had worn, headbands and a few other things out there. GPS can understand what happens in contact as well but the biggest challenge of that is reliability.

“There is so much independent movement that you are not actually measuring what is happening to the head and the skull and so we found the only way to do that was couple something to the skull. The next-best thing was to couple a mouthguard to the individual and from there we have seen what is happening to the head.

“We went through a huge validation process, firstly at Swansea University and latterly with Stanford University that have confirmed what we say is happening in contact is actually happening. This genuinely is something that helps make the game safer and we’re hoping these mouth guards can provide reassurance to parents, to players that just isn’t there at the moment.

“We suspect a lot of the issues lower down the grassroots, because you haven’t got 120kgs professional athletes running into each other and creating a big collision, the more dangerous ones are poor technique and timing, things like that. When you understand where the biggest risk of head injury and suggest different ways of training or different techniques, it can generally be safer at that level.

“It [contact] is such an ambiguous concept. The way elite professional clubs would have reported contact would be they might say a player hit 20 rucks in a game, but no two rucks are the same. You might be flying in from ten metres to one ruck and be just running up and touching another ruck but they would be put in the same bucket and that doesn’t tell the story of what is happening.

“So that is the journey we took. We started to quantify the contact demands, the number of contacts they were making and the intensity of those contacts with Ospreys and then very quickly we shifted into Harlequins, Gloucester, Leicester. We have done some work with Bristol Bears ladies, more recently Harlequins ladies, some work with Salford and Toronto rugby league and are about to kick off with St Helens.

“We are also looking at some boxing stuff, have done Premiership League football pilots and where we are able to provide real value is by not only showing what is happening to a player but also giving coaches and athletes a way to better manage that in training.

“We know 95 per cent of what happens in a match are your typical things you train for and it’s the five per cent incidents which are the accidents, a knee to a head, someone gets their tackle technique incorrect. Those are things you don’t train for and what we want to make sure is this other five per cent of incidents are seen.”

Has Lancaster a telling example? “One of the worst we have seen is a player carried into contact, it was really innocuous. A No8 carrying into a tackle and went down quite easily and the ball was played away. Nothing happened but we saw a huge impact in that data so we looked at it frame by frame and what actually happened is one of his own teammates arrived and kneed him square in the head when he was in that ruck.

“Nobody saw it whereas our technology will pick that up and rely it to the medics to ensure things don’t go unseen because in incidents like that you do want to help, to take the decision away from the player. It has got to be the experts because the player will always want to play on.”

The smart mouthguard idea isn’t only confined to the UK. World Rugby are currently involved in a University of Otago study regarding head impacts, but the governing body knows what SWA are up in connection with OPRO, the mouth guard manufacturers they partnered with in 2019.

“We have talked to World Rugby on the journey. First of all we have to seek their approval for this to be used in competition. They said this is an area where they can shed light and they are very supportive. All the conversations we have are hugely positive. I haven’t had a conversation where someone where someone said, ‘Look, this isn’t of interest to us’.

“It is our ambition that this should be rolled right across the English Premiership and into other leagues as well internationally but it is also on our roadmap that this will eventually get into the grassroots in sport as well, providing that reassurance for parents, teachers and coaches about what is happening.”

For Lancaster, who left a head of sport and corporate engagement role at Swansea University for SWA, that would be a development to savour. “I’m incredibly lucky. I didn’t play at the very highest level, had to retire at a very early age, but I owe my livelihood to rugby. I was very lucky because I coached with the likes of Steve Tandy at Bridgend, the likes of Mike Ruddock and guys at the Ospreys.

“I don’t think I was ever going to be good enough to go to the very highest level. It’s such a thankless job, coaching, so I just felt that joining SWA, I feel like I can make far more impact for the sport. I feel like we genuinely can make the game safer, we genuinely can transform rugby and take it to the next level.

“I genuinely believe this is something that is going to help change the game in a good way and hopefully helps secure the future of the game at well. It’s sad that we see numbers declining in rugby at the moment. A lot of that would be down to safety concerns from parents and this is something that can definitely help secure the future.

“I played in the same generation as Alix Popham. His story is tragic. I’m still in contact with Alix. He says he wishes this technology had been around in his day as it might have helped in some way. Danny Care said a similar thing, he wants this to be around for his kids. That is the big difference that this can make.”

 

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The secret ingredient in Harlequins' title-winning transformation

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