The GPS unit can be seen sewn into Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe’s jerseys. Picture: Getty Images/The Asahi Shimbun
The GPS unit can be seen sewn into Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe’s jerseys. Picture: Getty Images/The Asahi Shimbun

Rugby, a game for the stone age, has made it to the space age. The subjective has given way to substance in the form of technology, data and minutely measured performance.

Gone are the days when players and performances were judged from partisan perspectives that often led to selection horse-trading, especially at Springbok level.

Rugby analyst Zelim Nel offers America’s National Football League (NFL) as an example of how data can give a true picture of player performance.

"In the NFL, you can’t say that Emmitt Smith [who played in three Super Bowl-winning teams with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s] wasn’t as a good a running back as Roger Craig [also three Super Bowl championships, with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s], because each player’s career data has been mined and documented. Unlike rugby, there is no dark corner for bluffers to hide in."

Nel believes the rugby conversation can be elevated and the "everybody is entitled to his opinion rubbish" can be eliminated.

A recent example of the new outlook was SA’s World Cup quarterfinal against Japan, when the rugby critirati, weaponised by Twitter, tore into Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk for kicking too often. When the match statistics were unveiled, it turned out he’d passed more than he’d kicked, and had made 10 vital tackles. The data justified his man-of-the-match award.

Data collection in rugby — whether via satellite from a GPS, through an accelerometer that measures collisions and running demands, by means of various medical devices or even through using drones — are not recent innovations. It was pioneered almost 20 years ago in English rugby through its Premier League and the GPS technology is now common, even down to being used in schools rugby. So says Welshman Aled Walters, the Springboks’ strength and conditioning coach, who uses the data extensively. At the World Cup in Japan every team had its data experts and analysts. It’s like an arms race.

Most intriguing of the devices is the GPS unit sewn into the jersey at the back of the neck. "A fair [number of players] have complained about it in the past, but not too many," says Walters. "Some of the forwards in the front row find it uncomfortable."

One of them, Bok strongman Beast Mtawarira, puts a pad under the pod because the device can "drive into your neck; it’s not the most pleasant experience".

The GPS pack for measuring distance, speed and impact worn with a harness. Picture: Getty Images/Ross Land
The GPS pack for measuring distance, speed and impact worn with a harness. Picture: Getty Images/Ross Land

But the data these pods collect is invaluable. Even more important is the application. "The GPS can give you a wealth of information, but it’s how you use it that can make a difference in the way you train and prepare," says Walters.

It also helps with monitoring fatigue and stress, and can indicate how to treat a player at training.

Springbok fullback Willie le Roux could cover more than 8.5km in one game, says Walters. If he had done that on a Saturday and there was practice on the following Monday, it would influence how a coach would approach training that day. "Or if he had done it for four consecutive weeks, he might do with a bit of a break."

Walters’s first experience with the GPS was in 2005 at the Llanelli Scarlets, a Welsh regional team. He’d returned home from obtaining a master’s at the University of Edinburgh and wanted to get involved in a sport he had been passionate about since watching Phil Bennett play for the home team as a small boy. He later worked with the Taranaki team in New Zealand and then with former Springbok coach Jake White at the Brumbies before moving to Munster in Ireland, where he met Rassie Erasmus, who recruited him last year for the Boks.

In the early days the GPS was used only to check the distance players ran, he says. "It didn’t delve any deeper than that."

Today the device delivers a lot more. "It’s got to the stage where some teams would think it’s impossible to plan and monitor performance, training — everything — without the use of GPS. It’s become a very valuable source of information, if used properly."

Where it wasn’t of much use was in the last quarter of the World Cup match against Japan, where the human element prevailed. The Boks scored a try — by man of the match De Klerk, let it be said — following a long-range maul that traversed almost 50m.

"From a GPS point of view, that was one of the least intensive motions of any game all season," says Walters. But for the team’s forwards — including Lood de Jager and Frans Malherbe — it was probably one of the most energy-sapping moments in any game that season.

"Yet the GPS would say the movement was very low [in effort and intensity and very slow]. So it doesn’t really reflect those aspects of the game. That’s where the eye will trump the data."

Still, the data collected by the Springboks is a closely guarded secret. Asking SA Rugby about it is akin to requesting the launch codes. Yet how safe can it be in this competitive space age of rugby? When Matthew Pearce spoke to Bok technical analyst Lindsay Weyer, who uses drones at training, the SuperSport commentator ended the interview by flippantly suggesting Weyer go and get some footage of the All Blacks. "I’ve already done that," replied Weyer deadpan.

So spying on the opposition has gone to a new level. Just wait until the Russians — first-round losers at this year’s World Cup — start to take the game seriously.