The Chiefs are gearing up for the 2018-19 Gallagher Premiership season by using a new fitness analysis suite

Exeter Chiefs tapping into new technology

Tradition and technology – getting the balance right is crucial in all parts of life and sport is no exception. Take Exeter Chiefs.

First the tradition. A day spent at Sandy Park in pre-season shows the exertions in the gym, the skills work and, of course, the obligatory mickey-taking.

As Kai Horstmann emerges from the tunnel in a shirt and trousers as part of his new corporate role at the club having retired at the end of last season, there are calls from his former team-mates that he is needed on the pitch.

Director of rugby Rob Baxter has players positioned along the two 10m lines in pods of three or four with his kickers on the middle of the halfway line for a restart drill. It’s a favourite for the end of a Wednesday session.

The players are set a target of 15 successful catches from the kickers’ dropouts and a successful catch is a player being lifted by his pod and taking the ball above his head. Anything other than that doesn’t count.

Exeter Chiefs tapping into new technology

He can kick it: Henry Slade practises a restart (Getty Images)

To make things more interesting, if a pod go for the lift and don’t catch the ball, Baxter will deduct one from the tally.

Given the pleas that greet Hortsmann, it seems like they could do with his expertise on this particular Wednesday as it was an area he was renowned for, but the current crop are left to continue for another 20 minutes to reach the target.

Now for the technology. There are examples dotted around – the GPS units in the back of shirts and the AlterG anti-gravity treadmill in the corner of the gym that uses NASA technology to allow players recovering from injury to train without their entire bodyweight putting strain on the joints.

The biggest advancement for the Chiefs this season, though, comes on the top floor of the main stand in the shape of their new fitness analysis suite, launched in partnership with Red Bull.

It is full of state-of-the-art equipment and gadgets to test players’ bodies in various areas and hopefully flag any causes for concern early to help prevent injuries.

Exeter Chiefs tapping into new technology

Take a seat… The isokinetic dynamometer that assesses a player’s range of motion

In one corner there’s something that looks even more intimidating than a dentist’s chair – an isokinetic dynamometer. Players are strapped in and perform different exercises, like a leg raise for example, while the machine resists with a set force. If there is a significant difference between the results in the left and right legs, it may highlight a deficiency and the medical team can investigate further.

In the centre of the room are plates that measure forces of a player running or jumping, and XSens MVN full-body suits allow the Chiefs to get 3D motion capture imagery instantaneously to examine a player’s movement. There’s also a counterweight treadmill as well as the mask needed to carry out VO2 max testing to measure aerobic capacity.

Exeter Chiefs tapping into new technology

Suits you: The XSens MVN suits allow full-body motion capture

All in all, there’s a lot of complex and intricate analysis done in the suite but the aim is simple: to keep players playing.

“We want to keep players out on the field,” explains academy manager Rob Gibson. “We want to make use of the science and track players from a young age all the way through. We can build up a history and see if there are any weaknesses in a player’s body.”

Chiefs are focusing on their academy players first so they can get baseline measurements and then track them throughout this season and beyond, but first-teamers will also go through the process.

Chiefs have used this sort of equipment before but previously had to go to the University of Exeter to do so. Having everything on site is a huge advantage, says Pat Carden, Exeter’s sports performance scientist.

Exeter Chiefs tapping into new technology

High tech: The counterweight treadmill and other equipment in the new fitness suite

“Before, testing was more of a challenge because you had to juggle schedules, but now it’s all here we can test a lot more people more frequently,” says Carden.

“Rugby is so variable you can never predict injury, but we look for a series of different markers to allow us to be as informed as we can be. It’s not just one thing, there’s a comprehensive series of information – knee strength, rotational force, aerobic and anaerobic capacity… We might see a weakness on the left or right side, or a deficit potential that means there’s an injury risk.”

It looks as though Exeter are striking that happy balance between tradition and technology as they prepare for the new Gallagher Premiership season.

Exeter Chiefs have launched a brand-new fitness analysis suite for their first-team and academy players in partnership with Red Bull.

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