The cutting-edge science behind Welsh rugby

But like the men who change the tyres during Formula One pitstops, the Porthcawl man’s role is far more complex than mere matchday hydration.

The Welsh Rugby Union has been lauded for its performance department, now overseen by Paul Stridgeon, for several years. Indeed, it is the bedrock from which its players can perform the tasks demanded of them by Warren Gatland and his coaching team with the World Cup on the horizon in September.

Following an internship in 2010/11, Chambers was seconded to the Scarlets in both a Strength and Conditioning and Sports Science capacity when outside of international camp. (John Ashby, now part of Wales’ SC team, held a similar arrangement with the Dragons.) During those early years, he worked under the guidance of high performance experts such as Craig White, and then Adam Beard, now with the Chicago Cubs.

“After the 2011 World Cup, I became a Sports Scientist. SC and Sports Science dovetail, and both fall under the Physical Performance department,” explains Chambers. “I work closely with multiple departments, such as Medical and Analysis. With the analysts, for example, I can tell them precisely what players are doing at specific points in the match, such as how fast George North was running for his tries against France.”

A lot has changed within his remit since he first started. “It used to be that we only looked after international teams and players during camps. Now we monitor over 300 players on a daily basis. Player monitoring in the morning, monitoring loads and stresses, things we can do to make sure their preparation is right going into this summer’s World Cup camps, and that they’re in optimal condition week to week.”

Centre Hadleigh Parkes says that Chambers’ input to the squad serves to validate all the intense training the players go through. “It puts figures behind all your efforts, so you know that you’re not just doing it for the sake of doing it. It explains the reasons why you’re doing it, and it shows you that if you haven’t done so much during one session, you can go harder in others and vice versa. It’s a great way of keeping a little bit of control over how much players are doing, and knowing whether they need to do extras.”

Chambers is now nearing the conclusion of his PhD – which to give it its full title, concerns ‘Development and Validation of Microtechnology-Based Algorithms for Quantifying Collisions in Rugby Union’ – through the renowned Australian Catholic University (ACU), under the supervision of Professor Tim Gabbett ?and Dr Michael Cole.

Prof. Gabbett was consulting with the WRU when Chambers mentioned his interest in doing a PhD. “Tim said he’d be happy to supervise. It’s great to be conducting research alongside Tim and Michael as their experience and knowledge are very highly respected throughout the sport science industry, with hundreds of peer reviewed publications.”

His PhD title may be a mouthful for the layman, so how best to explain what it means? As Chambers puts it: “Previously, the devices sports teams use – GPS trackers, accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers, which all profile movement – have only detected collisions, so the main point of my research is that they didn’t discern what those collisions are,” he says, then adding the all-important: “But now we can.”

He breaks it down once again: “Before, you just knew a player had been involved in a collision. And yet we know that every contact isn’t equal: a scrum isn’t the same as a tackle, for example. Where previously you could have two players on 10 contacts each, we can now tell that Player X has done five scrums, three rucks, two tackles; whereas Player Y might have done five rucks and five tackles. All that helps with understanding the contact load, which is a hugely important area for performance and injury prevention.”

The most difficult part of pushing through these advancements has been done, he says, so all that is called for now is some refinement. “It’s a very lengthy process at the moment to quantify all that data, but we’ll soon be at a point where it’s time efficient.”

Since starting his PhD, Chambers has had three papers published in academic journals, focusing on the very topic outlined above, so it’s something of a labour of love. Still, he hasn’t forgotten how he got his break in this industry. “I know the value of doing a placement from first-hand experience, of the opportunities and insight it can give you. We have a studentship programme which is in its fifth year now, and we’ve had graduates go into various sports science positions.”

Chambers’ sports science expertise is not only beneficial to the Union itself – where he offers support across all performance pathways, including sevens and U20s – but to the Welsh regions. “It’s fairly unique that we do everything centrally and disseminate the information to their regions and clubs. It means that we have good information on the players coming into camp, and vice versa.”

Having kept a close eye on the players’ progress during their winning start in the first two rounds of the Guinness Six Nations, Wales will be hoping the rewards of a well-planned training schedule will hold them in good stead for their eagerly-awaited return to Principality Stadium in two weeks’ time.

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