The British & Irish Lions is one of rugby union’s oldest and most treasured traditions. Every four years, players from the England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland national teams join forces to take on one of the Southern Hemisphere giants – Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
The first tour took place in 1888 when traveling from Europe to the far-flung corners of the globe was a lengthy and arduous process. Tours would last several months, with the Lions taking on club sides as well as international teams.
The Lions concept has continued into the professional era and being selected for the touring squad is considered a huge honor for any player. This year’s tour of South Africa, held under the pressure of a pandemic, is no exception.
Lions tour 2021
These days, however, the whole operation is a lot more organized than it was back in the 1880s. To boost player performance and wellbeing, the Lions are using a new player performance dashboard built by Vodafone called ‘Player.Connect’. The platform is based on IoT software that aggregates data from multiple sources so coaches and sports scientists can access insights from anywhere in the world.
Wearable technology and analytics are commonplace within the sport, but many of these systems aren’t necessarily interoperable. This means uploading data is a manual, time-consuming process that could mean the information is out-of-date before it is actionable and is less useful than it would be with the additional context of other data sets.
What Player.Connect does is use advanced IoT software to automatically aggregate data from these multiple sources into a single view. This includes GPS, heart rate and impact data from smart mouthguards – which can be analyzed in real-time – as well as other information such as off-pitch recovery and mental health.
This aggregation capability dramatically simplifies the process and allows coaches and sports scientists to access insights from anywhere in the world. The end result is improved performance and enhanced player welfare.
“A lot of the hardware is stuff that they’re already using together but we’re saving time by pulling all of the data into an aggregated system,” Alex Skelton, Player.Connect Performance Consultant tells me. “Historically, a sports scientist would have to do this manually.”
Some of the wearables, such as GPS devices, are now a standard part of elite rugby kits. Other sources of data are acquired through regular assessments, which also provide insight into the mental health of the players. On a tour that can last several weeks, a long way from home – and during a pandemic – this is vital.
“When the players come into the team room [each day], they’re asked some questions and go through some exercises to assess stiffness, soreness, weight mood and quality of sleep,” adds Skelton. “This provides a holistic view of the players. Running a Lions Tour during a pandemic and a pretty secure bubble means mental health does come into it.
“The Lions are pulling together all of this data to give a holistic view of the players – their energy and mood and how they are coping with the stresses of the tour beyond the pitch.”
One of the central appeals of a Lions Tour is to see how a group of players that only come together every four years for a couple of weeks a year can turn into a cohesive unit capable of defeating one of the world’s best rugby teams. Anything that could provide an edge – such as analytics – is invaluable.
To ease this process, the Lions have some access to data that the national and clubs teams hold on the players. As this data comes from a variety of different systems and in different formats, the ability to aggregate it all into a single platform is hugely important.
“You can very quickly get a good picture of the athletes,” Skelton says. “Some of this insight will come from the coaching staff and sports scientists who are familiar with the players, but there will be some gaps. This makes the ability to measure physiology, training, and recovery hugely important.”
The British and Irish Lions are the first elite sports team to use Player.Connect, chiefly because of Vodafone’s commercial relationship with the team. Vodafone plans to carry out a review after the tour in South Africa to see how the product can be commercialized – and even adapted for other sports.
It believes the aggregation capabilities are a unique selling point and can prove invaluable as analytics becomes increasingly integral to professional sport. It’s no longer enough to collect the data and gain insights in isolation – there needs to be a coherent view.
“This is essentially aggregated data from wearables,” says Skelton. “Speed, movement and contact are very important in rugby, but you could easily apply this to any sport that requires a decent level of metrics. I think there’s a very decent opportunity.”
The Lions won the first test match in the best of three series a week ago, while South Africa won the second game this weekend. This means the next contest on Saturday will decide the series and such a close contest, even the smallest of margins can be decisive. Perhaps Player.Connect and data analytics will be what separates the teams.