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IRFU working to translate tech and data into fewer injuries and increased quality of movement

The IRFU’s head of athletic development Nick Winkelman demonstrates a new piece of kit under his roof and how the provinces are beginning to collaborate to help players avoid avoidable injuries.

WHO DOES THE IRFU’s best-qualified NFL expert think would be best suited to transition from rugby to American football? The answer might surprise you…

With apologies for sounding like clickbait, frankly, Nick Winkelman’s answer did surprise us, because there was no Sean O’Brien, hulking centre or freakishly explosive wing on his verbal shortlist. Just a young man with an exemplary economy of movement.

“When I observe someone like Joey Carbery and the way he moves in space — now, he might need to be a bit bigger in terms of muscle size — but I would think of putting him in a defensive back position, the way he moves in space I think he would do very well for himself.

Joey Carbery Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“On the offensive side he could play slot receiver or some kind of slot back, but when I see someone who can own space like he can and his lateral movement and how sudden he is forward, that’s what you need to be successful in the NFL one play at a time.”

There were many eyebrows raised at the answer, but it makes sense. Winkleman is not a man to unthinkingly deliver obvious responses based on assumption. As the IRFU’s head of athletic performance and science he is making it his job to constantly ask difficult questions.

Placing a tag of NFL expertise on Winkelman isn’t stereotyping him because of his accent. Before pulling on that IRFU polo shirt his job with EXOS involved preparing college prospects for the NFL Combine, ensuring they were primed to maximise their athletic potential for the all-important meat market selection process. Winkelman equates that eight-week process to a pre-season in rugby, but his work in overseeing injury prevention measures is inextricably linked to every point in the modern rugby player’s year.

sit and reach One of the qualitative metrics players get tested one.

Indeed, injury prevention practices have become a part of daily life for players in Ireland with Kitman Labs leading the way with setting measures and tests for players to offer pointers pertaining to their flexibility to allow their training load to be tweaked and managed accordingly.

Pre-dating those daily set of measures were the GPS units that are now essential pieces of kit for more than just professional teams. It’s the American’s job to ensure the swathes of information the tech provides is being used and interpreted effectively. And critical to that, has been Winkelman’s insistence on discussing and debating the merits of certain measurements.

“We’ve added in a feedback loop,” says Winkelman with reference to the current accepted list of measurements used across the national team and four provinces.

soreness A selection of subjective measures, tested by asking players questions.

“The information we’re collecting; we critically look at it, we analyse and it one of three things happens:

“One: ’wow that’s a good question, let’s keep it going’. Two. ‘we don’t know enough about that assessment; let’s keep it going a little bit longer.’ Or three: ‘the information coming back is not telling us anything, let’s get rid of it.  It’s one less thing we ask the players in the morning’.

Last year we were able to peel back one piece of data that was common across all four (provinces) that, intuitively they thought might be useful, but didn’t necessarily have the data to back it up.”

Winkelman won’t specify which measurements have fallen by the wayside, but they fall in the subjective category rather than the physical measurables being plotted on an individual players’ chart.

“We analysed those with one of our partners to see which ones gave us meaningful information and which ones didn’t. We were able to remove two or three questions, because over years of data it wasn’t relating to any meaningful outcome on the pitch.”

There is a vital balance to be struck between making players aware of the cause and effect of the sports science they are the subject of while not impacting their performance by overloading them with all the ones and zeroes that make a programme work.

Nick Winkleman Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“We would never show all of these different variables to players.  For us, there is zero risk. You can’t change what you don’t know needs to be changed.

“We have to be able to assess information in a way we feel is meaningful. The question asked in terms of actioning against that data, that’s the information you want to share with the player. Because if a player sees the unit on their back, the mobility stuff, the questions, yet they never have an objective sense of what’s being done about it, then they can typically start to become disinterested.”

anklemob

These actionable areas could take the form of a player being stood down from a given match, but more commonly it comes before training. If their measurements show, for example, ankle mobility problems then their programme that day will be tailored to rehab or rest that issue. If their on-field GPS speed and acceleration scores were top notch, they can be asked to rein it in next time out, save it for matchday.

The newest, shiniest piece of tech in the union’s array of tools for measuring players’ fitness and preventing injury is a hamstring specific apparatus called the NordBord which has emerged from the renowned Queensland University of Technology.

Kit like this doesn’t come cheap, but with a four-year agreement signed with the creators, the IRFU now have five of them, one for each province and the national team.  How it works is simple, the feet are anchored in loops and the player being measured kneels and leans forward as far as their hamstrings will hold them.

Allan Temple-Jones demonstrating the NordBord Allan Temple-Jones, head of athletic performance with Ireland 7s, tests his hamstring strength on the Nordbord. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“The exercise itself, doing these eccentric or lowering hamstring activities can help – if I can use the term – ‘bulletproof’ the hamstrings. It doesn’t make them perfect, but from an evidence perspective we know that if you have these in your programme then your total risk of hamstring injury starts to go down.

“Another thing about the device that’s really important for us is that is provides an assessment of how much strength you have in an absolute sense, but also in a symmetrical sense. Asymmetry often can tell us about your risk…. generally speaking an increase in asymmetry increases your risk.”

nordbord1

The real-time results of the strength and symmetry test you can see in the image above will not be held in-house by the union, but shared with a university research team together with all their measurements so that, over the course of the four-year partnership they can collate and study the results and tell Winkelman “about the relationships from all this information” and continue to ensure the right measurements and tests are being performed.

Of course, strides have also been made to share all measurable information between provinces.

“We created a national standards document which is a collaborative voice. It creates continuity when a player is in province and the national team. But it doesn’t lack the substance of what provinces feel they need to do or what the national team needs to do.

“Also, it allows us to take the data from all five entities and put it all into one place and thus start to answer critical questions faster.

In this whole area of data analytics and science, you’re only as good as how much data you have and its quality.

“For us, on the centralised model, if we can multiply that data by five then it should allow us to answer key questions faster.”

It also allows players to benchmark more effectively, because once the data is compiled on the union’s software and standards document, coaches can chart scores and compare them either within a given position, within their province or across the whole island.

Rugby relevance

The next step for this mass of information, Winkelman hopes, is the formation of a rugby specific scoring system, so that athletic achievements don’t exist purely as kilos, Newtons or seconds, but weighted based on their importance in the sport.

“We’re working towards what we call a ‘rugby relevance’ number. It’s not complete yet, but it will be in the next year. We will have all the coaches at the respective age grades across these assessments grade its relevance by position.

“A prop might be low at a given attribute, but a rugby relevance at a given age might be a three. Another attribute you could be just above average, but the rugby relevance is a 10. So this allows us to get better at prioritising and individualising at an age grade level, setting a tone as they go up into the senior ranks.”

With the rugby relevance number, players in and around academy will be put through enough assessments to give the people in charge of their development a clear picture of their development, where they’re strong and where they require improvement. Winkelman has a working title of ‘player performance passport’ on that development, and hopes it can bring about a scenario where agility – and crucially, the ability to use that agility when required – is rewarded and prioritised over size and bulk.

“Imagine that the second you come into our system, we’re able to get a strategic assessment on you that will work back from the pitch that are relevant for the age and position that you’re in. These are not just quantitative metrics about how much you can bench and how much you can squat. These are qualitative metrics on how effectively can you moved.”

We have more and more reactive and decision based agility, knowing its relevance to the game. If we’re not assessing decision making we’re missing a massive piece, because from an athletic performance perspective your movement is only as good as your ability to make a decision to use it.

“If you’ve got someone who’s really fast, really good side to side, but they’re not using space very well, it’s of no use. So we try to add that element to the athletic performance profile.”

“You’ll see over the next coming years that quality of movement among our young players is going to continue to be a dominant topic.”

Quality movement like Carbery’s, you could say.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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