The game-changing device keeping Harlequins and Gloucester on course for Premiership glory

ByLance T. Lee

May 20, 2022

When Harlequins and Gloucester meet in a close Gallagher Premiership clash at Twickenham on Saturday, the two teams will share a lot in common.

The two have plans to seal a play-off spot. Both will want to impress a huge crowd in the cradle of English rugby. Both will want to continue playing their entertaining brands of rugby.

But what’s less well known is that Harlequins and Gloucester are leading the way in using breakthrough mouthguard technology as a way to improve player well-being.

Gloucester full-back Ollie Thorley uses the high-tech mouth guards in training and matches

The benefits of doing so have already been felt at both The Stoop and Kingsholm.

Last season, the use of PROTECHT technology provided by Sports & Wellbeing Analytics (SWA) played a significant role in Harlequins winning the Premiership. This term, he helped Gloucester rise through the ranks. The technology allows teams to instantly measure the size of contacts encountered by players in both practices and matches.

The data is fed back to the sideline via sensors placed in the player’s mouth guard and provides numerous wellness and performance benefits.

First, it allows teams to check for concussions or head injuries that may have been missed on the field.

Additionally, teams can also change the way they train based on the data.

The benefits of technology have been felt at both The Stoop and Kingsholm

The benefits of technology have been felt at both The Stoop and Kingsholm

Last season, Harlequins reduced the number of contacts in training by 70% thanks to the analysis of data provided by PROTECHT.

The result was a first Premiership title since 2012.

After a trial at the end of the 2020/21 campaign, Gloucester have used technology full-time this season and have seen a dramatic improvement in their form.

“We use the mouth guards in training and in games and at all times we are in contact,” Gloucester full-back Ollie Thorley told Sportsmail. “It gives you confidence that your contact’s level is being monitored. There’s a lot of pressure on the game now in terms of player protection.

“Anything that can monitor impacts is hugely beneficial and it’s a good thing the data you get from the mouthguards means the wellness decisions are not in the hands of the players.”

“The mouthguard can monitor the speed of your head movement, which is a really good indicator of whether you’ve potentially had a concussive or subconcussive blow.

“Even three or four years ago this was not available to medical staff. Rugby is a physical sport so there will always be a degree of risk. But it’s about making sure the risk is as low as possible. I certainly think since I started playing that risk has been reduced.

Player welfare is one of – if not the biggest – issue in rugby today.

The diagnosis of former players such as Steve Thompson and Alix Popham with permanent brain damage and early signs of dementia showed that something had to be done.

“It’s massively on everyone’s mind – you can’t really get away from it,” Thorley admitted.

“It’s all over the media right now and rightly so.” Steve’s story seems particularly poignant.

Harlequins and Gloucester lead the way in the use of mouthguard technology

Harlequins and Gloucester lead the way in the use of mouthguard technology

“Most players will have ideas about it. This again underlines the need to take care of ourselves and for our clubs to help us do this. It’s great that Gloucester is using this mouthguard technology not only for performance reasons now, but also for our well-being in the future.

Harlequins and Gloucester are the only two Premiership clubs currently willing to pay to use technology to ensure their players are taken care of. Welsh Region Ospreys are also working with PROTECHT who are currently in talks with other Premiership and United Rugby Championship sides.

Eoin Power – Chief Medical Officer of Gloucester – said: ‘The data on mouthguards is fascinating on two levels.

“Sometimes impacts – like those at the bottom of a ruck – go unnoticed, so the technology gives us an extra layer of protection for players against parts of the game that we’d rather not happen.

“It’s obviously a huge addition to our arsenal in the fight to reduce concussions.” Second, it helps us optimize our training contact load.

“If you can get those levels right, it helps you protect your players from bullets.” If the data shows that a player had a particularly tough game, we might reduce their overall contact load the following week to ensure they are fresh and recovered for the next game.

“We’ve had a big reduction in injuries across our squad this season. It’s definitely helped with player contact management. More importantly, it’s helped us manage potential concussion-related injuries more appropriately.

“This technology ensures that any invisible contact does not slip through the net.”

Harlequins and Gloucester can provide tangible examples of how the use of mouthguard technology has benefited them this season.

“Before using the system, the focus of coaching and performance on one of our key backlines was that his impact would diminish after five or six games,” Harlequins chief medical officer Mike Lancaster said.

Harlequins cut contact in training last season and won their first Premiership title since 2012

Harlequins cut contact in training last season and won their first Premiership title since 2012

“With the new system and a 70% reduction in training contact load, its performance is now fantastic. Previously, we had no idea the intensity of some of the hits he took.

“He’s now gone 15 games in a row without any crashes and we’ve seen that in a number of our athletes, including the older ones.”

Gloucester’s Power added: “One of the biggest touches in the game is chasing kicks.

“We have a very skilled player whose specialty is executing that skill. In one game in particular, he had finished three or four very important chases and had some big collisions.

“In all of those collisions he looked absolutely fine and from a concussion symptom perspective he would have registered no concerns.

“But when we looked at the aggregate data afterwards, we were quite concerned about the contact spikes he was having and we saw he probably wasn’t quite right after the game and so have him handled as a potential concussion. Without the mouthguard data, this wouldn’t have surfaced at all.

“Without the extra layer of protection we wouldn’t have been able to handle it as effectively and that’s what it’s about because there’s no game without the players.”

Both Harlequins and Gloucester groups of players will wear mouthguards using PROTECHT’s chip technology at Twickenham this weekend.

Cherry and Whites head coach George Skivington and Power admit the adoption of microchip technology isn’t the only reason for their improved form this season.

But at the same time it has clearly been of huge benefit and it cannot be a complete coincidence that Gloucester and Harlequins have seen an increase in player availability and subsequently performance on the pitch since using the mouth guard.

England World Cup-winning hooker Steve Thompson has been diagnosed with dementia

England World Cup-winning hooker Steve Thompson has been diagnosed with dementia

“Technology means we can limit ourselves to a few exercises that allow us to achieve enough success without baking it too long,” Skivington told Sportsmail.

“We’re still looking at how we can maximize it, but we’ve definitely made some good changes and all the boys are using it now.” It’s definitely a positive thing.

“It allowed us to train smart and keep people healthy, which is extremely important.

“There is no doubt in my opinion that the mouth guards that our players wear benefit them now and will benefit them in the future.”

After two years of Covid-19 decimating Premiership clubs’ finances, Harlequins and Gloucester deserve credit for investing thousands of pounds in the welfare of their players.

This investment was rewarded with their respective positions in the league. They will enter third and fifth respectively in Saturday’s clash at Twickenham.

Harlequins also plan to extend the use of mouthguard technology to their academy setup as it is already used with their women’s side.

PROTECHT’s monitoring system is also used in Premier League football and boxing. Other tests such as examining the composition of a player’s saliva are available to monitor concussions, but mouth guard technology is currently leading the way.

As the battle for rugby player welfare continues, it is set to become even more widespread soon.

“You have to be brave enough to put your head above the parapet,” Power said.

“Now that I’ve seen the data that can be produced and the impact it can have on how we manage and care for players, I think it’s absolute no-brainer.”

“I don’t think it will be long before he is rolled out across the Premiership. We should do everything we can to protect the players and the game.’

HOW IT WORKS

How the PROTECHT technology provided by Sports & Wellbeing Analytics works:

  • Players wear mouth guards with a microchip during contact training and during games.
  • The microchip technology measures the physical contacts each player receives.
  • This data is then instantly sent to the sidelines and monitored by coaches and support staff who can react accordingly.
  • If the data shows a player has taken a huge blow – to the head or otherwise – then coaches can remove him from the pitch if necessary.
  • It can also be used to manage a player’s workload in training. If he has had a big blow during a match, he will then be monitored the following week and ‘white bib’ if necessary which means that he will not make contact.


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