The Need for Speed: How Measuring Rugby League Players is Revolutionising National Team Selection and Pathway Decisions

The Betfred Super League recently returned to our TV screens, captivating fans with its newfound speed of play, cataclysmic tackles, and line breaks from some of Rugby League’s biggest and fastest players.
We look at the impact of the RFL’s decision to work closely with data, technology, and the media to improve the sport we all love. The speed of the game has increased to better engage fans, national team selection and performance pathway decision-making have improved, and now the game is safer to play for all including amateur athletes.
Matty Nicholson rofessional rugby league footballer who plays as a second-row forward for the Warrington Wolves

In 2017, the Rugby Football League (RFL) announced a partnership with Catapult to further enhance the governing body’s innovation credentials. With the partnership, Catapult, the leading provider of sports technology across many sports including rugby league, supplied the RFL with more than 350 athlete monitoring devices and embedded performance systems within the 12 teams of the Super League and the England National Team.

“The sport-wide relationship with Catapult has further enhanced rugby league’s long-standing association with technology innovation through the use of market-leading wearable technology … Catapult has been an integral part of the sport for over six years and transformed the way our clubs use objective athlete performance data to make key performance decisions across Betfred Super League,” said Managing Director of Rugby League Commercial, Rhodri Jones.

“More recently, we have overseen the successful integration of real-time live data into the coverage of our two major showpiece events, helping us amplify the sport’s profile through broadcast. We are extremely enthusiastic about the partnership with Catapult.”

Partnership Breeds On-Field Success

Together Catapult and the RFL have enjoyed many successes. The most recent of which came as St. Helens won the 2023 World Club Challenge in Sydney.

The partnership between the RFL and Catapult has also brought about much success off the field. Since 2017, many rules have been amended following the league-wide collection of data and player-specific insights.

Data & Research Led Rugby League

As part of the RFL’s commitment to innovation and the use of data and technology, the governing body supported various research projects with the Carnegie Applied Rugby Research group.

Using this research group enabled the RFL and the Super League to scientifically measure the impact of rule changes and performance-related decisions.

Members and the impact of this group rose to prominence during the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic. Competitions were suspended for lengthy periods, cancelled or abandoned and a research project led to a safe return to play for the players and coaching staff.

As a result of this research project, the RFL and Catapult were able to reduce the number of close proximity encounters within matches. This research led to league-wide rule changes which included the temporary removal of the scrum and the addition of the ‘6 again’ rule.

This research group has also been a central figure in the increased speed of the game, a key objective in making the ‘rugby league product’ more exciting for fans to watch. Key outcomes:

  1. An increase in whole-match and Ball in Play (BIP) duration.
  2. Average speed of players increased, therefore, the pace of the game is faster.
  3. A higher amount of ‘match events’, so greater levels of action across all positions.

National Team Impact and Pathway Decision-Making

The impact of the league-wide partnership extends beyond just rules changes and tracking the players. Using the technology has improved national team selection processes and decision-making across rugby league athlete’s performance pathway.

Former Super League and England star and now Head of Performance at Warrington Wolves and England, Ade Gardner explains this impact.

Ade Gardner in Training

Q: When the partnership began in 2017, what data did you use first?

“Initially, it was about getting more context around the demands of the game and managing training loads for injury prevention purposes and to maximise performance. Those were the two big things that came out.

“We use it a lot to give feedback to players about what their performance looks like in training, in certain drills and the game as well.”

Q: Is it now more of a two-way conversation given players have grown up with the technology and understand it better?

“Definitely. Now it’s just become commonplace – players wear the devices in every training session … Generally, you get a lot of buy-in from players about where they want to be and what they want to be doing in sessions. Particularly in pre-season periods, we set thresholds based on maximum intensity and provide feedback to players live in sessions.

“The other big one for us is speed. You get people in our systems like Matt Dufty and Matty Ashton who are keen, especially, when they make a break. They want to know what their match speed was.”

Q: How do you adapt training using this data-based decision-making? More informed about loading or de-loading during training weeks?

“We’ll take daily wellness and monitoring questionnaires, to get a sense of what levels the boys are up to. Paul Vaughan is a great example, who has been playing out his skin the opening few rounds. He’s 32, got a few miles under the belt and had to play more minutes because we’ve unfortunately had a couple of injuries to some of our middle unit.

“We’ve been getting his game output of what he’s been used to in Australia, what he’s been doing over here and then taking in the context of how he’s feeling in the week … So with that we might de-load him the first day back in [after a game] and he’ll only do a certain percentage of the training and just take him off feet that day. He might do a steady Wattbike session, so he still gets his training output, but he gets it without the impact on his body.

“Using this approach, Vaughan gets that little bit of extra recovery going into our later end of the cycle and then is fresher for games.”

Q: Is there more accountability on players given there’s nowhere to hide due to getting real-time data during training and games?

“You want to keep the players accountable on what their physical outputs … It does give you a little bit more ammunition when you talk to the player and ask why certain these things are occurring. But it’s not necessary to have a go at the player, we’re all human beings and we’re all trying to help them.”

“It’s a long season, you’re fatigued and under a lot of pressure so it is quite easy to make the wrong decisions. It’s more on us to try and keep an eye on where we’re at, but we’re lucky that we’ve got a good, well-rounded group, so we’re using this information to keep them fresh and flying for the weekend.”

Q: How important is it to identify players who have speed, athleticism and work at a high intensity given the changes in the game and increase in speed of the game over the past decade?

“The six-again rule came in just after COVID and the game changed, the ball in play time went up in games and the periods when the ball was in play were more intense. Our job is a lot more important now – you can’t afford to have a weak link from a fitness point of view.

“You’ve got to be very diligent – the preseason period for us is always very important. We try and get everyone through a preseason period with a large amount of training load under their belt.

“We put a massive onus on what we do over that preseason, where we get 10-12 weeks to do physical capacity work which we try and integrate with the drills that we do and that’s where the Catapult GPS systems come in. We’ll assert certain GPS metrics on a drill, for example, we will set up small-sided games where they’re running with the ball, but we want everyone up to a certain match intensity while we do that drill.

“…We’re essentially finger-printing drills based on what the GPS data gives us. That all helps you build the athlete and rugby player, because I can do a lot of conditioning drills which might be straight line running – which does improve your aerobic capacity – but unless you’re doing it with a ball in game situations, it doesn’t give you the right exposure.”

Q: How much more efficient can you be in your line of work given the level of data made available and the ease with which it’s reported?

“It’s brilliant. We’ve got a great sports scientist working for us who manages much of the GPS stuff. Any questions we have, it’s one message to someone at Catapult and we get an answer pretty much within 30 minutes.

“The Tableau reports give us a good view of where we’re at compared to the rest of the league. So when I go to Matt Dufty or Matty Ashton and say they’re two of the fastest boys in the league, it gives them a big boost. If I go to some of the other boys and tell them we’re playing at a higher match intensity per five minutes or overall, it gives you a decent pat on the back and good encouragement to maintain your training output and do the things we do professionalism wise through the week.”

Q: What do you see as the next steps for the sport using GPS data?

“The big one is trying to increase the exposure of rugby league. We’ve always been pioneers, going right back to the start of the Super League. I know some GPS data gets out there [into the public domain] but I think the next step for our sport is to make more of it public, so people have a real insight into what goes on.

“I think there’s a massive ignorance in realising how good our players are and how athletic they are. I think if people knew the context of what the players are doing, then we would have a lot more interest in the sport. People would be watching these games and the skill level, the intensity, the contact and collision and thinking, look what these guys are doing. That would give our game a massive boost.”

Jake Clifford, Australian professional rugby league footballer who plays as a scrum-half and stand-off for Hull F.C

The Future of Rugby League with Data & Technology

Both the RFL and Catapult are excited to continue their partnership long into the future. Data and technology usage will soon filter further down rugby league’s performance ladder, so amateur players, just like their favourite Super League stars, can play faster but also more safely through objective decision-making.

The knowledge the RFL and Catapult have gained from working together across the national team and all Super League teams since 2017 will be invaluable as the sport looks to grow and engage fans further and wider.

Combining this with continued on-field success at the national and professional level, tv screens and fans watching rugby league can expect to see more action, faster gameplay, and more insight into the performances of rugby league’s greatest stars.

→ Click here for more from the RFL, Super League, and Catapult.

For more information on league-wide data and technology partnerships, click below:

NRL league-wide deal – Catapult, the world leader in elite sports performance analytics, has signed an aggregated contract with the National Rugby League (NRL), cementing the performance partner as a supplier of technology to NRL Clubs, NRLW Clubs, Australian representative teams, and match officials.

Centralised Data in the NRL -League-wide technology partnerships can help sporting governing bodies reduce injuries, improve development pathways and assess the impact of rule changes, a leading technology manager from Australia believes. We recently caught up with National Rugby League’s (NRL) Football Technology Manager, Johnpaul Caia to discuss the importance of centralised data and multi-team partnership in sports.

French Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) – Catapult is pleased to announce that the French Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) has appointed the Company the preferred supplier of technology to all teams that compete in France’s Top 14 and Pro D2 professional rugby competitions for the next four years. Following extensive due diligence and a competitive tender process, the award was in collaboration between the LNR and the French Rugby Federation, the governing body for the sport, and the country’s national teams.

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